A kingmaker for the invisible primary

Yesterday, we published an interview I conducted with Hans Noel, co-author of the 2008 book The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform. The core argument of the book is that the “invisible primary” should be understood not simply—and perhaps not even principally—as a competition between candidates, but rather as an attempt by party leaders to coalesce behind a standard-bearer. In terms of the implications for horse race coverage, that suggests fewer stories about the candidates out on the hustings, and more attempts to figure out what’s on the mind of those party elites.

But the “party-oriented” frame doesn’t restrict reporters to wide-angle snapshots, as Politico’s David Catanese showed Tuesday with a profile of Mike Lee, the freshman Republican senator from Utah who’s quickly established himself as a Tea Party power broker. The focus of the article is Lee’s influence in Senate primaries, rather than the presidential race. But there’s a clear portrait of him as an important “decider,” who will vet candidates hoping for the support of the party—or at least, for his faction of the party:

Lee has already met personally with more than a half-dozen candidates, made endorsements in two Senate primaries and set up a pair of leadership political action committees to aid those who share his constitutionalist brand of conservatism.

And he plans to ramp up his profile in the coming months, with the clear goal of growing the Senate’s coalition of advocates of limited government.

“We ought to have more people who believe in constitutionally limited government. We have to have more people come to Congress with that mind-set. I think we can make this a better place, if, when elections happen, we support candidates who share that philosophy,” Lee explained in an interview.

That passage captures an important point of Noel’s book, which didn’t really come out in our discussion: politicians running for office aren’t just trying to appeal to ordinary voters; they’re trying to please what might be called “intense policy demanders” within their party’s coalition. Lee is a noteworthy political figure because he’s a U.S. Senator. But as important, he’s one of those “policy demanders” who is trying, with considerable success, to force his party to embrace his understanding of “constitutionally limited government.”

Meanwhile, this section from Catanese’s article dovetails nicely with what Noel told me about how elite endorsements shape party decision-making:

Former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz, a Senate candidate who earned Lee’s first endorsement back in March, says the freshman senator’s blessing prompted a flurry of conservative groups and activists to take a look at—and swiftly get behind—his candidacy.

“Mike’s early support was critical to the later endorsements we received from The Madison Project, FreedomWorks, the Club for Growth, each of which cumulatively build momentum. Mike was the very first to jump out there. It had a tremendous impact,” Cruz told POLITICO, pointing to a surge in donations after Lee penned a fundraising letter for him.

…FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe bolstered Cruz’s account, saying Lee’s blessing serves as a potent alert to activists.

“It’s a market signal, ‘take a look at this guy.’ We certainly noticed when he endorsed Cruz,” Kibbe said.

None of this is particularly novel or earth-shattering, but it’s astute stuff—and it’s happening many times over in the presidential campaign. That means that as the GOP’s invisible primary unfolds, there are plenty of stories for reporters to find.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx. Tags: , ,