After political survivors like Mitch McConnell and Orrin Hatch effectively fended off conservative primary challenges, the conventional wisdom was that they — unlike Sen. Richard Lugar, for example — took these contests seriously from day one.
If the old playbook said you could essentially ignore a primary opponent who didn’t appear to be gaining traction or raising money (why give them attention?), the new theory says that you must hit every fly with a sledgehammer — before they metastasize into a monster.
After all, you don’t want to be caught flat-footed.
In fairness to winning incumbents like McConnell and Hatch, that wasn’t their only strategy. The other ingredient was to put in hard work and elbow grease — to spend time back home (Lugar had been accused of being an absentee Senator) — and take the retail aspect of a campaign just as seriously as the wholesale part of running negative ads destroying an opponent.
But, make no mistake, the new model was to go on offense and disqualify your primary challenger before he had the chance to catch fire — to strangle the baby in the crib, so to speak.
Is it possible that Eric Cantor’s team learned (the simplistic version of) this new lesson too well?
There is speculation — made by Dave Brat, himself — that Cantor’s ads attacking him inadvertently helped him — by raising Brat’s name ID.
The easy narrative is to say that Cantor took Brat too lightly — that he was too focused on becoming Speaker of the House. And maybe there’s some truth to that. But it’s worth asking this: Would Cantor have been better off ignoring Brat, altogether? And would have done just that were it not for the “new rules” for how to beat back an insurgent…?