Tim Johnson announced on Tuesday that he will retire from the Senate, leaving open the Democrat’s seat in South Dakota, a state which Mitt Romney won by 18 points in November. This seat poses both a challenge and opportunity for Republicans and conservatives, as they have struggled to put forth candidates who can capture opportunities to take winnable seats.
Over the past two election cycles, conservative activists have propelled candidates with blatant liabilities through primaries, only to hand potential Republican pick ups to the Democrats. Candidates such as Christine O’Donnell and Sharon Angle squandered big leads in early 2010 polls, and the high-profile gaffes only got worse in 2012.
While the fiscal conservatives in Missouri split their support behind John Brunner and Sarah Steelman, while Todd Akin was able to consolidate the support of social conservatives and members of the Republican establishment such as Mike Huckabee to win a tightly contested primary. Akin later infamously stuck his foot so far in his mouth that it came out the other side when asked about abortion and rape. A similar situation occurred in Indiana where Richard Mourdock lost Dick Lugar’s old seat. That being said, trading Obama’s favorite Republican for a Democrat wasn’t much of a loss for conservatives.
Tea Party activists deserve a tremendous amount of credit for the leaders they have propelled into office. Senators Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul were Tea Party darlings who fought establishment picks in tough primaries and won. They maintained their composure and professionalism through the general election, and established themselves not only as respectable politicians but as future leaders of the Republican party. Principled defenders of the constitution and individual liberty, they have appealed to younger voters by rising above the left vs. right politics, including tackling traditionally liberal issues such as the war on drugs and executive power.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio successfully primaried an establishment Republican who turned out to be such a moderate that he changed parties. Although he has turned his back on the Tea Party activists that helped him through his contentious primary, his success as a politician has helped prove that politicians supported by conservative activists are not all liabilities to the party.
It will be interesting to see how the interests of conservative activists and Republican insiders collide in South Dakota next year. With the state overwhelmingly supporting Romney and leaning Republican, it shouldn’t be difficult for a grassroots candidate with a staunch libertarian streak on economic policy to win. Of course, the fact that South Dakota has repeatedly elected a Democrat means that many moderate voters could be swayed by a candidate they view as extreme.