Do Republicans really have a primary problem?
Less than a month after prominent losses in several Senate races, including Rep. Todd Akin's shellacking in Missouri, some GOP leaders say the answer is yes.
To retake the federal government, they say, they must avoid nominees like Akin or Indiana's Richard Mourdock, who struggled in the general election after making controversial post-primary statements about rape and abortion.
"Candidates and campaigns matter," Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri said after suggesting that his party's leadership should become more involved in a pre-primary screening process.
But avoiding Akin-like candidacies in 2014 will be much harder than it sounds, other Republicans and outside observers said.
Who does the picking? On what basis would candidates be picked? Where do voters fit in? And would hand-chosen candidates do any better than the current system?
Hardwiring preferred candidates "is a fool's errand," said George Connor, political science professor at Missouri State University in Springfield.
Such self-reflection and argument after an unexpected electoral beatdown is common. Indeed, some Republicans worry their party will overcompensate for Akin's defeat, which they blame on a series of factors unique to this election cycle.
What's more, they say, politics ought not to be just about what will win an election, but about electing people who carry out the party's values.
Messy primary outcomes aren't limited to the GOP. American politics is much more open than it was in 1934, when Tom Pendergast anointed Harry Truman as Missouri's Democratic nominee. An open selection process often leads to candidates who do better with primary voters than the public at large.
For many Republicans, the Akin problem still stings. Party leaders expected to gain control of the Senate in 2010 and 2012, only to watch the chances slip away because of what they consider subpar candidates picked in low-turnout primaries.
"What's (the) problem?" wrote conservative columnist Fred Barnes after Election Day. "In Senate races, it's bad candidates: old hacks (Wisconsin), young hacks (Florida), youngsters (Ohio), tea party types who can't talk about abortion sensibly (Missouri, Indiana), retreads (Virginia), lousy campaigners (North Dakota) and Washington veterans (Michigan). Losers all."
Finding good candidates -- even settling on whose definition of a good candidate to go with -- is complicated.
"Grassroots people resent being told who to vote for," said former Missouri House speaker Carl Bearden. "People distrust what is affectionately known as the establishment. ... Primaries are for choosing the candidates voters want to have."
Additionally, some candidates -- particularly wealthier ones -- no longer rely on the party insiders. They would be unlikely to agree to step aside for a candidate chosen by party elders.
"You can't control self-funded candidates," Connor said. "That cat is out of the bag."
Before blowing up the candidate selection machinery, some Republicans say their party faces a more fundamental issue: Did it lose Senate races because candidates were too conservative, or because they weren't conservative enough?
That unanswered question popped up again last week in West Virginia,
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