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Republicans are paying a price for their extremism

The GOP’s self-destructive primaries have cost it a lot of power, particularly in the Senate.

mcconnell and trump and ryan Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

It’s an article of faith among many Democrats that Republicans have somehow escaped the electoral consequences for the increasing extremism of their party. Doug Jones’s narrow victory over Roy Moore on Tuesday night looked, to many liberals, like a rare exception. But as political scientist Matt Glassman points out, it’s far from alone.

Starting around the 2010 Tea Party surge, Republican voters have repeatedly chosen the most extreme candidates during primaries, and have paid a real electoral price, particularly in the Senate.

  • In Nevada’s 2010 Senate race, State Assembly member Sharron Angle beat state Sen. Sue Lowden to face Democrat Harry Reid. Lowden was expected to easily beat Reid, but Angle was a weak candidate who, among other things, said that Sharia law had taken over cities in Michigan and Texas and that the health care system was better when poor patients bartered for care with doctors. Reid won.
  • In Delaware’s 2010 Senate race, Christine O'Donnell, who had never held elected office, beat at-large Rep. Mike Castle in the GOP primary. O’Donnell proved one of the strangest candidates in memory, and lost a race that Castle almost certainly would have won. Republicans also lost the House seat Castle vacated.
  • In Colorado’s 2010 Senate race, Tea Party favorite Mike Buck beat Lt. Gov. Jane Norton in the Republican primary, and then lost narrowly to Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet in the general. It’s widely believed that Norton, a more moderate candidate who didn’t have Buck’s background of extreme comments on abortion, would’ve won.
  • In Indiana’s 2012 Senate race, Tea Party favorite (and State Treasurer) Richard Mourdock took down incumbent Sen. Richard Lugar in a primary, turning an untouchable seat for Democrats into a race that Democrat Joe Donnelly ultimately won.
  • In Missouri’s 2012 Senate election, Republican voters nominated Todd Akin, a very conservative representative who would go on to make bizarre comments about rape and pregnancy during his race against embattled Democrat Claire McCaskill. McCaskill won.

If Republicans held all these seats today, and if they hadn’t run and lost with Roy Moore on Tuesday, they would hold a 57-43 margin in the Senate, and Democrats would have no shot at taking back the chamber next year. Extremism has cost the GOP a lot of power, and blunted the natural advantage the Senate’s small-state bias gives the Republican coalition.

Nor is it just the Senate. Donald Trump’s presidency is understandably invoked as evidence that Republicans pay no price for their extremism. And it’s certainly true that Trump’s win is evidence that Republicans don’t pay as much of a price as Democrats wish they would.

But Trump underperformed in the 2016 campaign, losing the popular vote in an election where both the polls and the fundamentals predicted another Republicans would have easily won the race outright. If Republicans had nominated Marco Rubio or John Kasich, it’s likely Hillary Clinton would have lost the popular vote by 3 or 4 points, and Republicans might have picked up the New Hampshire and Nevada Senate seats as well.

Moreover, Republicans are now stuck with Donald Trump. It’s remarkable that a first-term president governing amid low unemployment, a booming stock market, and a long run of economic growth is trapped below 40 percent in the polls and triggering unexpected Democratic wins all across the country. I am skeptical that under these circumstances, another Republican president would be this unpopular, or provoke this much backlash.

To be clear, Republicans control the House, the Senate, and the White House, despite carrying fewer votes than Democrats in the aggregate for all three institutions. And the GOP has marched to victory in statehouses across the country and governors’ mansions.

The party is powerful and dominant, and it has a huge geographic advantage that has been fortified through aggressive gerrymandering and voter ID laws. It’s Democrats’ good luck that Republicans are squandering much of that advantage by repeatedly choosing such weak candidates.

Listen: Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias discuss the Alabama Senate election, and the GOP’s future