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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Softening Up Candidates For General Elections

One of those political topics that definitely need more careful analysis is the idea that tough primaries full of negative attacks can “soften up” winners for the general election. There’s actually a counter-notion that primary competition “tempers” campaigns for November, and it’s obvious that primaries can boost name ID. But by and large, surviving a good, vicious primary battle is not considered the best prescription for success in highly competitive general elections. Time spent “healing” one’s own party is time that’s not available for reaching out to swing voters, and sometimes wounds just won’t heal at all.
This subject is relevant today because of the unusually large number of competitive Republican primaries this year, a number of which have gotten pretty nasty, and/or branded winners either as right-wing kooks or as unreliable RINOs little better than Democrats. As we get closer to November, polls will give some evidence of the net impact of primary divisions. But for now, the one thing that can be said with some certainty is that primary lines of attack on candidates can carry over into general elections and help opponents reinforce negative perceptions, even if the party holding the nasty primary “reunites.”
Let’s say Rick Scott wins the Florida GOP gubernatorial primary next week (not a great bet at the moment, but you never know). In his desperate effort to overcome Scott’s vast personal resources, primary opponent Bill McCollum has gone to great lengths to publicize the Medicare fraud scandal that afflicted the Columbia-HCA hospital chain under Scott’s direction. Should Scott win, Democrat Alex Sink will have to spend a lot less time and money raising this issue than would have been the case had McCollum left it alone. This will help Sink with independents and “soft-partisan” Democratic and Republican voters even if Republican politicians close ranks after the primary and McCollum starts praising Scott as a combinaton of Solomon, Ronald Reagan, and St. Francis of Assisi.
For a less hypothetical scenario, consider the situation in Georgia immediately after Nathan Deal’s extremely narrow gubernatorial runoff win over Karen Handel. At Southern Political Report this week, the distinguished University of Georgia political scientist (and runoff expert nonpareil) Charles Bullock suggests that Handel went overboard in tarring not only Deal but all her GOP enemies, including much of the Republican membership of the state legislature, as corrupt yahoos. This creates an immediate “unity” problem for Georgia Republicans, one that Handel herself tried to address by quickly conceding defeat in the runoff and endorsing Deal. But she can’t take back the many months she spent pounding away at the “corrupt yahoo” message, and there is no question Democrat Roy Barnes will pick up exactly where she left off, since nothing is more valuable to him than the idea that Georgia’s unaffiliated voters should be angry at Republicans in Atlanta as much as Democrats in Washington.
You can’t always count on primary candidates in the other party to do you these kinds of favors. In the California Republican gubernatorial primary campaign that concluded in June, Steve Poizner appeared to have gotten considerable traction with attacks on Meg Whitman’s questionable ties to the Goldman Sachs investment firm. But Poizner soon switched to a focus on immigration policy, and got crushed. I am sure that Jerry Brown and his allies were deeply disappointed by Poizner’s strategic decision, which meant they’d have to spend that much more time and money raising the Goldman Sachs issue all over again.
So it’s worth examining contests with difficult primaries from the limited point of view of discerning whether general election opponents quickly pick up on weaknesses exposed in the primaries. To deliberately mix metaphors here, there’s much to be said for striking while the underbelly is soft.

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