The Washington Times

Today in New Jersey’s 5th Congressional District, moderate Republican Rep. Marge Roukema faces a primary challenge from conservative state Assemblyman Scott Garrett. Mrs. Roukema narrowly defeated the underfinanced Mr. Garrett in a primary two years ago. This time around, the race is drawing attention nationally because of the involvement on Mr. Garrett’s side of the Club for Growth, a group of Republican activists dedicated to funding conservative Republican candidates, even against Republican incumbents.

This primary contest offers an excellent window on how politics works. For Republican insiders seeking to retain their House majority, there is one set of priorities, and for conservative Republican outsiders seeking a party that acts more in accordance with their conservative views, there is a different set.

The insider point of view is roughly this: The objective is to obtain as many House seats as possible. Some seats are easy to come by, and some are not. The easiest are those that are heavily Republican to begin with and have popular incumbent representatives. Barring catastrophe, they are givens in the quest for a House majority.

Mrs. Roukema’s northern New Jersey district perfectly fits that description. Bob Dole won there in 1996, and Mrs. Roukema is seeking her 11th term in a district in which she has routinely racked up 60-plus percent of the general election vote.

Why mess with success? Mrs. Roukema can hold that seat against any Democratic challenge until she dies.

Well, from the conservative outsider point of view, you mess with Mrs. Roukema because she is not conservative enough. Although she styles herself a staunch fiscal conservative, her ratings from conservative watchdog groups are consistently low among Republicans in the House. She also has something of a flair for voicing opposition to key points of her party’s activist agenda. She opposed welfare reform, for example, which put her to the left of the Clinton administration. And she is opposed to private accounts for Social Security, which aligns her with the position of Al Gore rather than that of George W. Bush.

Hence the Club for Growth’s support for Mr. Garrett. Yet its intervention in the race is unwelcome on principle to insider leaders, who feel obliged to support all their incumbents against all challengers. Should they feel so obliged? Some of them, after all, claim to be as conservative as Mr. Garrett and have the voting records to prove it, and they genuinely regard their moderate wing as a pain in the neck. Yet what would it mean for a party leader to decide to pick and choose among incumbents? What would uncertainty on this point do to his ability to hold the support of the party? A pledge of support for incumbents is a point on which incumbents can readily agree. In this case, other moderate Republicans insisted on and got a conspicuous demonstration of support for Mrs. Roukema from the Republican leadership.

Yet note that some members of the House Republican conference are more liberal than Mrs. Roukema. They have not been targeted by the Club for Growth. Why single her out? She has speculated that it’s because she’s a woman, but if she really believes that, she needs better political advice. Rather, it’s because of the character of her district.

Other congressional districts are far dicier political propositions for Republican incumbents than Mrs. Roukema’s. Representatives generally reflect their districts – or at least, they generally try to conduct themselves so as not to get voted out of office.

A serious conservative primary challenge to an incumbent in one of those districts could cost Republicans the seat. On one hand, it might succeed, yielding a nominee too conservative for the district. On the other, and more likely, it might fail but still weaken the incumbent for the general election.

The Club for Growth is politically serious, which is to say, it wants to achieve primary and general election results. It is not going to risk playing a role in losing a seat for the party it rightly takes as its home. At the same time, it is unbound by the insiders’ pledge of support for the status quo. It wants a Republican Party that is, on economic matters, as conservative a majority as possible.

That’s Mrs. Roukema’s problem. Her rock-ribbed Republican district affords her no necessity-based defense. She could vote a more conservative line at no risk to her seat. But she prefers not to – as is her choice, but there will be political consequences. Just as there would be for Rep. Tom DeLay in his Texas district if he woke up one morning and decided we ought to ban guns.

There are a lot of Wall Street types involved in the Club for Growth, and in a way, that makes perfect sense, since what the organization is engaged in is a sort of arbitrage. If a district ought to have more conservative representation than it does, the Club for Growth sees an opportunity and buys in. That might result in a new candidate’s being willing to vote the district more in accordance with its underlying politics; or it might result in an incumbent’s deciding to vote a more conservative line in order to defuse the challenge. Either way, thanks to the Club for Growth’s action, the gap closes. And it just might encourage other members not to allow such arbitrage opportunities to come up in their districts.