History is written by the winners, so it’s understandable that names such as Joe Carr, Milton Wolf, and Chris McDaniel are hardly remembered in 2016. But it’s still remarkable how close some of the most entrenched members of the Senate came to losing against virtual nobodies whose main political argument was that they weren’t part of the mess in Washington.
Of the five GOP senators facing credible primary challenges in 2014, three won reelection with less than a majority of the vote, and no one topped 60 percent. Establishment-oriented Senate candidates in North Carolina and Alaska ended up winning heated primaries with barely over 40 percent of the Republican vote.
There are striking comparisons between the Senate insurgents of 2014 and the presidential-campaign outsiders of today. Like Carson, Wolf was a physician with little political experience, but even after proving he wasn’t ready for the scrutiny of a statewide campaign—he posted patient X-rays on his Facebook page—he nonetheless held Sen. Pat Roberts to 48 percent of the vote.
Like Cruz, Carr was a bomb-throwing backbencher in the state legislature whose claim to fame was his opposition to immigration reform. Yet despite spending what would have been a tiny fraction of Sen. Lamar Alexander’s campaign fortune and getting little media attention, he held the Tennessee political icon to under 50 percent of the vote and came within nine points of victory.
Like Trump, Matt Bevin was a brash, wealthy businessman who had the temerity to challenge his party’s leader head-on. Even though he was unsuccessful in defeating Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, he now is sitting pretty as governor of Kentucky.
McDaniel was a forerunner to both Trump and Cruz. He made his mark in the Mississippi Senate as an uncompromising tea-party conservative, but a trail of racially-charged rhetoric made him persona non grata to party leaders. In another parallel to Trump, McDaniel was immune to nearly any attack Republicans threw at him. It took a last-minute effort from Cochran’s campaign persuading African-Americans to vote for a Republican in the runoff to pull off a narrow victory.
All these candidates ended up losing, but not because the Republican electorate had become more pragmatic. Instead, they lost because party leaders and allied outside groups took aggressive steps to blunt the appeal of the outsider candidates from the beginning. McConnell threw the opposition book at Bevin, accusing him of being a fake conservative, of falsifying his resume, and of not paying back taxes. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce ran expensive advertising campaigns boosting their favored candidates, while American Crossroads attacked the credibility of the tea-party challengers. In Mississippi, Cochran pulled off an unlikely victory by persuading African-Americans to vote for the senator. (That effort was aided by Barbour, who ran Cochran’s anti-McDaniel super PAC.)