As we slog through the shank of 2010 primary season, it should be reasonably obvious to anyone thinking about it that the two major political parties have limited control over the candidate slates they will offer to voters in November. Aside from the anti-establishment mood that is making many GOP (and some Democratic) primary voters react to the Party Label like a red flag, all sorts of factors of ideology, candidate attractiveness, and most of all, money come into crucial play.
But the habit of treating political parties as omipotent agents of their own destiny can be strong, viz. this comment nestled in an ABC story on the campaigns of California Republicans Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina:
“The national GOP wants to make California competitive again, and I think they have decided it’s not just a state they should cede to the Democrats,” says Lara Brown, an assistant professor of political science at Villanova University in Pennsylvania . “Under Howard Dean, the Democratic party adopted a 50-state strategy saying the way to build the party back was to get great candidates no matter what,” she says. “Meg and Carly are part of the same idea by the GOP and are helping even more because they have their own money and the party doesn’t have to invest in them.”
Not to single out Brown for a Copernican Revolution, but she’s got it backwards: Whitman and Fiorina picked the GOP, not vice versa. Meg Whitman’s 80 million smackers in pre-primary spending would have almost certainly won her the GOP gubernatorial nomination even if she had been someone totally different in gender, background and (within the narrow bounds of GOP acceptability) ideology. And if “the national GOP” were truly focused on the “idea” of being as competitive as possible in California, “it” would have probably been wearing a Tom Campbell button on June 8, not backing Carly Fiorina, whose positions on abortion and immigration (not to mention her record as CEO of Hewlett-Packard) could be problematic in the general election campaign.
The essence of party strategy is to develop an infrastructure and a message that is compatible with a broad swath of candidates. That does not include pretending the party chose them from the get-go.