Conservatives had some potential wins last night. At this stage, not losing every single election is an improvement. However, it is still clear that unless primaries are reformed in favor of state conventions, conservatives will continue to be at a disadvantage without a well-monied candidate or unique circumstances.
Here are the top six outcomes of last night.
1) Mark Harris knocks off incumbent: While nobody in the national media focused on this race, the biggest news last night was not the West Virginia Senate race, but a conservative ousting a RINO from a North Carolina House seat. Social conservative activist Mark Harris knocked off Robert Pittenger, a pro-amnesty Republican, in the primary for NC-9. Harris, a Baptist pastor, lead the North Carolina marriage amendment in 2012, the last successful ballot initiative to protect marriage before the courts stepped in. He also had the support of the fiscally conservative Club for Growth. Harris promised to support Jim Jordan if he runs for speaker. This was a solid win for social conservatives and a likely boost for Mark Meadows in the state.
Significantly, this was the first time an incumbent was successfully challenged by an outsider in a primary – running to the right of the incumbent – since Dave Brat beat Eric Cantor in 2014. But the key element here is that Harris ran a close race two years ago, had a statewide social conservative network, and raised over a half-million dollars. It wasn’t as much as Pittenger’s war chest, but it was enough to get his message out. It’s very clear that without some cash, it’s almost impossible to beat an incumbent in a primary.
2) Every other incumbent won: This is where the good news in the House ends. Every other incumbent won re-election including 16 out of the 17 incumbent House Republicans (minus Pittenger) standing for re-election in Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, and North Carolina who voted for the omnibus bill. There is no doubt that if this many Democrats betrayed their liberal base in such spectacular fashion, there would have been the money and candidates to challenge the incumbents. Knocking off one incumbent per cycle is not going to change the game for conservatives. When pro-amnesty, pro-debt, and pro-Obamacare Republicans can breeze through the primaries right after betraying their base, there is something awry.
3) Open House seats a disaster: Well, if we can’t beat incumbents, are we at least moving the ball forward and incrementally reforming the House GOP conference by winning open seats? Nope. There will not be a single Freedom Caucus member among the two open House seats in Indiana, two open House seats in Ohio, and the open seat in WV-3 vacated by Evan Jenkins. All establishment hacks.
4) Ohio GOP insufferable: Ohio was the worst state for conservatives last night. Kasich/Portman-style Republicans swept the statewide offices, as Rep. Jim Renacci won the nomination for Senate and state Attorney General Mike DeWine, one of the most liberal members of the Senate during the Bush years, won the nomination for governor. Granted, there were no stellar conservatives running this year after Josh Mandel was forced to exit the Senate race because of his wife’s illness, but this was the worst outcome possible for conservatives. Furthermore, in the two open House seats in districts 12 and 16, the candidates supported by Kevin McCarthy won over those supported by Jim Jordan. Nothing has changed. The candidate with the most money to run on broad conservative platitudes, regardless of his record and his intent, always wins.
5) A fighting chance for conservatives in Indiana and West Virginia: While the returns for House races were disappointing, conservatives netted the best possible outcome for Senate in Indiana and West Virginia. Mike Broun took the nomination in the Hoosier State against two establishment and flawed congressmen, and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey won against RINO Congressman Evan Jenkins in West Virginia. We also avoided the almost-certain loss in the general election by not nominating Don Blankenship. However, to be clear, despite the endorsements from Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and the Senate Conservatives Fund, there is no demonstrable evidence that Morrissey will be in the mold of a Ted Cruz. He was clearly better than Jenkins, who would have been another Shelley Moore Capito, but conservatives must begin working with him today to steer him in the right direction. Ditto for Mike Braun in Indiana. He ran broadly on innovative free market health care ideas, and there is some potential for him to be independent-minded, but unless conservatives immediately establish a relationship with him, McConnell and his henchmen will take over.
6) Black and white issues still matter: Despite the dismal performance for conservatives in Ohio, when voters of both parties in Youngstown were presented with a clear choice on the issue of fracking, they chose correctly. An anti-fracking measure was defeated by 56-44 percent, even though Youngstown voted for Hillary Clinton and despite the enthusiasm of Democrat voters in urban areas this year. This is the seventh time the effort to ban extraction of fossil fuels within city limits has failed.
The lessons from last night are obvious. Conservatives can win when they coherently craft a vision while drawing sharp distinctions from the swamp. But that requires money to combat the lies of the RINOs who wear our jerseys while scoring points for the other side. Things have not gotten bad enough for primary voters to choose unknowns over the swamp.
Daniel Horowitz is a senior editor of Conservative Review. Follow him on Twitter @RMConservative.