The Buckley Rule and the concept of ‘electability’

The Unablogger

The Unablogger

As tea partiers and other conservatives begin to recruit candidates to continue the revolution through the 2012 elections, we must learn from both our successes and failures in 2010. Many establishment types have chastised us for “ruining” Republican chances of capturing the U.S. Senate and some governorships by nominating genuinely conservative candidates who ultimately didn’t win. We are urged to invoke The Buckley Rule, promulgated by the late conservative icon William F. Buckley, Jr., “Nominate the most conservative candidate who is electable.

I wholeheartedly agree with The Buckley Rule. But to follow the rule, we (and anyone else who is preaching it) need to understand it. Simplistically pointing to the defeats of GOP senate nominees Christine O’Donnell, Sharon Angle and Ken Buck and gubernatorial nominees Dan Maes, Carl Paladino and Bill Brady doesn’t cut it. Similarly, the successful campaigns of Mark Kirk, Kelly Ayotte and Dan Coats, all establishment-backed candidates who overcame tea-party candidates, do not provide any meaningful support for moderates’ case. After all, tea-party backed senate candidates Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Mike Lee and Idaho congressional nominee Raul Labrador were also on the moderates’ rant list, but these candidates’ big general election wins diverted the moderates’ scorn to other targets. Other establishment-backed primary winners, notably Carly Fiorina, Meg Whitman and Dino Rossi, failed to bring home wins. In most of those cases, other more objective measures of electability were the primary reason for victory or defeat. And sometimes, you fight the good fight but still lose.

Moderates and their allies in the mainstream media tend to assume that “electable” is synonymous with “moderate.” Nothing could be farther from the truth. Electability is a complex measure that is unique to each particular contest. I would suggest the following criteria be utilized, and certainly my savvy, perceptive readers can offer others in the comments below.

Ideological compatibility with the electorate. Electability varies with the ideological complexion of the district’s voters. On the west coast, the east coast north of the nation’s capitol, and in many urban areas, conservatism realistically does not sell well. In the case of the 2010 Delaware senate contest, a principled conservative like Christine O’Donnell may have been ideologically incompatible with the electorate in a state where liberalism has dominated for the past generation. In contrast, moderate Sen. Scott Brown turned out to be perfect for the Massachusetts special election that proved to be the national momentum changer in 2010. On the other hand, conservatives were right to push for more principled candidates for the senate seat in Utah and the one-term-Democrat house seat in Idaho, where conservatism is king. For those electorates, the more conservative candidates were the more electable candidates.

Risk of liberal Democrat victory. Conservatives need to assess whether it is necessary to settle for a “lesser evil” in order to avert something even worse than a RINO. As I have written before, virtually every RINO Republican is more conservative than any elected Democrat. How much worse would the Democrat be than the RINO alternative? Would a principled nominee who does not appeal to the needed votes of moderate independent voters expose the seat to an over-the-top leftist? In Delaware, Sen. Chris Coons was often referred to as the “bearded Marxist.” If Coons’ voting record begins to track that of avowed socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), conservatives may come to regret not settling for the arguably electable RINO alternative, Mike Castle. But in Colorado, milquetoast Democrat Sen. Michael Bennet, though an unfortunate obstacle to the quest for control of the senate, wasn’t as big a risk.

Risk of moderate Republican victory. This is a corollary to the previous factor. Sometimes getting the party victory that you want is worse than losing. Would a more moderate nominee, if elected, discredit the conservative or Republican brands? The poster child for this factor is Dede Scozzafava, the disastrous RINO congressional nominee in a 2009 special election in upstate New York. The pro-abortion, ACORN-endorsed Republican nominee lost what was then a historically safe Republican seat when most grassroots Republican voters bolted to the nominee of the Conservative Party. But if elected, her performance in office would have damaged the Republican Party’s credibility with its base. Before jumping to the conclusion that we have to settle for a RINO, we need to stop, think and ascertain as best we can the potential damage to the party that can result from embarrassing unreliable representation by a RINO.

Vetting of personal issues. A candidate’s ideological purity doesn’t matter if a history of dishonest or unethical behavior or other personal misconduct (or the mere appearance of same) renders the candidate unelectable. This is an area where an established party organization has vetting resources and experience that grassroots tea party organizations lack. But that difference is meaningless if the party organization fails to do the job. In a low-visibility Republican primary for Missouri state auditor in 2002, the Republican organization recruited a capable but little-known candidate, but failed to check into Al Hanson, a perennial candidate who also filed. Missouri Citizens for Life, a pro-life group that was (and remains) very influential in Republican primaries, endorsed Hanson based on pro-life positions expressed in his response to their questionnaire, after the establishment recruit failed to respond. The grassroots organization looked only to its questionnaire and made no effort to vet their pick on anything else. The endorsement propelled Hanson to a shocking 65-35 win over the recruited candidate in the Republican Primary. Then, immediately after the primary (but not in time to inform primary voters), the mainstream media disclosed that Hanson was a convicted felon. Hanson refused the party’s pleas to withdraw, and incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill won big in November, perhaps enhancing her image enough to defeat Republican Sen. Jim Talent four years later. Though not as telling as a criminal felony record, significant problems with unsuccessful Republican senate nominees in both Delaware and Nevada helped Democrats withstand the 2010 Republican wave and hold those seats. Moral: We need to know everything about potential candidates, warts and all, to avoid serving up an easy target for negative Democrat campaigning.

Conservatives need to recruit top-flight candidates in 2012, from the presidency on down. Being a solid conservative is an important requirement, but the other factors listed above also need to be considered objectively. They need to be addressed during the recruitment process, so that the opportunity to recruit someone else remains if the early favorite is found to be unacceptable. It’s also better not to have to air dirty laundry publicly in a resource-wasting contested primary.

Over a dozen serious candidates may vie for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, and a solid handful of serious choices will seek the right to unseat Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill in Missouri. It is essential that capable conservative candidates win the general elections for both offices. We must be able to make an informed and reasoned decision who “the most conservative candidate that is electable” is.

13 responses to this post.

  1. […] although he has some vulnerabilities — could potentially fulfill William F. Buckley’s commandment to Republicans: nominate the most conservative candidate who is […]


  2. Worthy comment all around.

    I appreciate your analysis of the Delaware contest in 2010. O’Donnell was not a fit for Delaware, or even for the state Republican party.

    I also agree that “electable” does not automatically mean “moderate”. Still, some states are so Blue, that only a Purple COnservative has a fighting chance of being competitive.


  3. […] education, immigration, taxation, industrial policy and the composition of the Supreme Court. While there are limits on this rule, it applies to this election because like m0st presidential elections in recent years the election […]


  4. […] As I have written more extensively before, the Buckley Rule (Nominate the most conservative candidate who can actually win) applies to this contest. On one hand, we accomplish little, if anything, by replacing President Obama with a RINO who will continue current policies but attach the Republican name to them. On the other hand, it does the country no good to nominate a conservative purist who will repel swing voters into the arms of President Obama. There are times, like 1964, when the electorate isn’t ready to accept a principled conservative (Barry Goldwater), even against a flawed incumbent (Lyndon Johnson). There are other times, like 1980, when a bold, clear contrast (Ronald Reagan) with a failing presidency (Jimmy Carter), articulately presented, is exactly what the electorate is seeking. […]


  5. […] William F. Buckely, founder of National Review and one of conservatism’s stalwart defenders. Said Buckley about voting for candidates for high office: “Nominate the most conservative candidate who is […]


  6. […] of thinkers was Karl Rove, who’s personally founded Conservative Victory Project follows the Buckley Rule which aims to “pick the most conservative candidate who could win.” Basically, its a […]


  7. […] should remember and adopt the Buckley Rule –  “nominate the most conservative candidate who is electable” — and then work […]


  8. […] It was William F. Buckley Jr. who said, “Nominate the most conservative candidate who is electable.” […]


  9. Posted by Cliff on August 14, 2015 at 10:42 pm

    I find it remarkable that you managed to write this column about Bill Buckley’s (invaluable and true) dictum without once mentioning Todd Akin. That must have been a herculean effort.


    • Posted by The Unablogger on August 15, 2015 at 10:00 pm

      Cliff, this item was posted in February, 2011, more than a year before filing even opened for the 2012 Missouri senate race. Todd Akin had not yet even expressed interest in running for anything other than reelection to his safe congressional seat. During the campaign I endorsed primary opponent Sarah Steelman, partially over skepticism over McCaskill’s obvious promotion of Akin.

      And while Akin was already known as (and thrived on being) a principled conservative and pro-lifer, the Akin we knew then didn’t become the Akin the nation knew until he stepped in it in the controversial television interview that took place after he had already won the primary. Even the liberal St Louis Post Dispatch had endorsed Akin in the primary.


  10. […] that’s that. Every day I am more convinced that Rubio is the real deal. If you subscribe to the Buckley Rule, the most conservative choice in the current field who is electable is Rubio. He is not […]


  11. […] it does, it could put Cruz in the catbird’s seat — and that may prove problematic for The Buckley Rule: Cruz might be more legitimately conservative than Trump, but he could be far less […]


  12. […] a variation to the “Buckley Rule”: “Nominate the most conservative candidate who is electable.” To wit, get the […]


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