Campaigns Matter, But So Do Fundamentals, Context and Governing

As part of the post-mortem of the landslide defeat of Richard Lugar earlier this week, National Journal‘s Reid Wilson contrasted his fate with that of another veteran GOP Senator–elected the same year as Lugar–who had a similar record of bipartisanship in the past and was similarly targeted for extinction by hard-core conservatives at the beginning of this cycle: Utah’s Orrin Hatch:

Lugar has lost, and Hatch appears to be on a glide path toward re-election. Why? Because campaigns matter. And the contrast between the Hatch and Lugar campaigns could hardly be more stark.

On one hand, Hatch’s team ran what amounted to several thousand mini-campaigns. The campaign identified previous convention delegates, polled them extensively and found which delegates were likely to back one of Hatch’s rivals. They then recruited opponents, helped those alternative candidates amass the support necessary and shepherded them through the precinct caucus process.

Come convention time, Hatch had effectively picked his own electorate. And he almost avoided a primary altogether: Hatch needed 60 percent to skip a primary; he scored 59.2 percent. Polls indicate Hatch leads former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist by a wide margin among the wider primary electorate.

Lugar, on the other hand, hadn’t had a real re-election challenge in three decades — and it showed. Challenged on whether he actually resided in the state, Lugar spent weeks, even months, defending his home address, his decision to live in northern Virginia and even whether he was legally eligible to vote in Indiana at all. His entire campaign, in other words, was spent answering questions his opponent wanted him to answer.

This is all true, though it’s worth noting that Lugar’s iconic status among Indiana conservatives was never quite as strong as was Hatch’s among those of Utah; that the very un-democratic convention system that made it easy for Tea Partiers to croak Bob Bennett in Utah in 2010 worked to the benefit of the massively financed Hatch in 2012; and that Hatch did not face an opponent even remotely as formidable as Richard Mourdock. Moreoever, national Republicans gave Lugar at best lip-service support, while Hatch benefitted from the active assistance of the most popular politician in recent Utah history, Mitt Romney.

At Ten Miles Square, Jonathan Bernstein adds a couple of additional notes of caution about Wilson’s “campaigns matter” conclusion:

[C]ampaigns are apt to matter most in exactly the situation Wilson is focused on: primary elections. In general elections, especially in high-information general elections, campaigns are not going to be able to overwhelm party identification and whatever else is out there. Campaigns can still have an effect, even in presidential general elections, but there’s just no way that they’re going to do nearly as much.

And then the second thing is that a lot of the differences between what Lugar and Hatch have done go beyond what we usually think of as “campaigns.” Both Senators made choices about what to spend their time on in Congress, and how to vote on potentially controversial items. Both of those (sets of) choices may have affected their re-election bids. We certainly can call all of that part of the campaign, and it’s true that looked at from one angle it’s reasonable to think of everything that politicians do as campaign-related…but looked at from another angle, there really is a separation of “governing” and “campaigning.”

On Jonathan’s second point, most of Hatch’s “bipartisanship” heresies were in the relatively distant past; he certainly relearned the ability to snarl and rant and howl at the moon after Barack Obama became president. Lugar was voting for Obama Supreme Court nominees and providing crucial support for the “New START” treaty well after it became obvious he could become the object of a purge in 2012.

It’s tempting to say that in competitive elections, “everything matters.” And while you must always try to separate the sheep from the goats in assessing the factors affecting elections, it’s true that today’s oversimplified analysis often yields tomorrow’s surprises.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.