Primary elections can be messy affairs, leading to all manner of hurt feelings, strange bedfellows, depleted campaign coffers, and crushed, broken dreams. Party officials tend to hate them, preferring to follow Ronald Reagan’s eleventh commandment.
For them, it’s not just a matter of money being spent on internecine warfare, but fears of skeletons popping out of closets which inevitably haunt the eventual winner in the general election. But for all the complaints, this is one area where what’s bad for the party is good for the voters. In the end, it is the individual members of the party around the state or district who should choose the nominee, not the entrenched leadership.
The Republicans have a couple of these family affairs in full swing right now, complete with all of the angst and confusion you might expect. Perhaps the most high profile race is playing out in Florida between Marco Rubio and Charlie Crist. Rubio’s campaign looked to be a rather quixotic one in the beginning. He started out with zero name recognition and a financial profile better suited to setting up a lemonade stand than launching a statewide Senate race. By contrast, regardless of some national conservative opposition, Crist was widely regarded as a popular figure around the state with impressive resources and the rapid, if ill considered backing of the national party.
The primary process led to that situation changing drastically over the winter, though. Rubio attracted millions of dollars from online activists who found his conservative bona fides to be far more solid than the Obama-hugging, stimulus-supporting Crist, and Florida voters seem to be listening to that message. A recent poll found Marco leaping out to an 18-point lead, forcing the formerly presumed nominee into some desperate measures. Someone inside the party began telling tales out of school and the local papers jumped on a story which involved Rubio making personal purchases on his GOP credit card. The story doesn’t look like it will gain a lot of traction, but it’s still a painful reminder that politicians today have to exercise extreme caution in every facet of their lives. If you find yourself at the local wine shop with a party credit card in your hand, it may be time to ask one of your staffers for a few bucks.
Thus far, John McCain’s race is shaping up somewhat differently. He’s being challenged by talk radio host J.D. Hayworth, who features similar conservative credentials to Rubio and has a fair-sized platform from which to shout. But the 2008 Republican presidential candidate still seems to hold significant appeal for voters in his home state, and his campaign has been quick to dog the challenger about various things he’s said on the radio. Most prominent among these are what Ed Morrissey recently referred to as his “birther flirtations.”