COMMENTARY | In Las Vegas, there’s a rule that the dealer must hit on 16, and stand on 17 in blackjack. If it were “the dealer must hit on 19, stand on 20,” the dealer wouldn’t win many games.
But the extremes in both parties seem content to play such a high-risk strategy, taking an extra card with 19 points on the off chance of a 20 or 21, when such a move is statistically more likely to go bust. They’ve been tossing aside electable moderates in exchange for unelectable extremes.
News came out that Rep. Tom Latham will not run for Sen. Tom Harkin’s Iowa Senate seat. It will be the latest case of another blown opportunity for Republicans, whose voters display a maddening inability to master basic political math.
Latham is a perfect example of the type of Republican the party needs to capture a seat in a purple swing state like Iowa. He’s closely connected to the business community. He’s moderate in tone, and not a politically incorrect bomb thrower. Most importantly, he’s the best candidate in head-to-head matchups with Rep. Bruce Braley, the Democratic Party heir apparent to Harkin’s seat, in a PPP poll.
But Latham dropped out because GOP primary voters decided that an “establishment” candidate means moderate, and therefore sufficiently “unconservative.” So they prefer Rep. Steve King, who is the master of unelectable comments. Polls showed King trouncing Latham. That PPP poll also shows King as the GOP choice losing to Braley in the fall election.
To show you how someone could be bad at political math, let’s take Latham’s voting record. He has a career American Conservative Union voting score of 84.6. King has a more conservative record, but not by that much. He has an ACU score of 95.6.
By picking King, the GOP is setting itself up for a fall contest where Braley owns a huge advantage in head-to-head matchups. Braley also has a much more liberal voting record, with a career ACU voting score of 1.33. So, for 11 points in conservative voting, the GOP is prepared to sacrifice 83.3 points in liberal voting, by allowing Braley to most likely win.
It’s not as if analysts can’t see this sort of thing coming. Delaware Republicans pushed out Rep. Michael Castle with a career ACU voting score of 38 with the unelectable Christine O’Donnell, who proceeded to lose to Democrat Chris Coons, who now sports a career ACU voting score of 1.33. And now Castle’s old seat is held by John Carney, who has a career ACU voting score of 4. It’s the story of Nevada and Colorado in 2010, as well as Missouri and Indiana in 2012.
Democrats had their screw-ups too. In 2010, they pushed out Sen. Arlen Specter (who had a career ACU voting record of 42.17) in a primary, only to have the more liberal nominee Rep. Joe Sestak (career ACU score 0) lose to Rep. Pat Toomey (career ACU score of 96.5). Half a loaf would have been better than none.
Similarly, in Arkansas, liberal Democrats thought Blanche Lincoln (career ACU score of 20.51) was too “liberal” and bled her dry in a 2010 primary. Now they have Sen. John Boozman (who had a perfect conservative ACU score of 100).
But the Democrats appear to have learned their lesson, for now. You don’t see them trying to get rid of their moderates in 2012, or in 2014. Yet the Republicans seem bent on gambling away winnable senate seats in the last two elections, and the upcoming one next year, instead of making safe bets.
John A. Tures is an associate professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga.