While the Democratic Party is ideologically diverse, with a plurality of moderates and healthy segment of both liberals and conservatives, the Republican Party is considerably less so.
Self Identified Ideology of North Carolina Republicans:
A majority of North Carolina Republicans describe themselves as conservatives, and that nearly scuttled any chance they had at winning the Governor’s Mansion this year. PPP surveys in early 2008 showed that Pat McCrory was the only Republican who would be even remotely competitive with Bev Perdue or Richard Moore. But McCrory was thought of by some within party circles as too moderate to be an acceptable nominee.
He did just barely clear 40% to win the nomination, but it seems quite possible given the ideological disposition of party voters that if he had been forced into a runoff with Fred Smith he would have lost. A majority of Republican voters cast their ballots for candidates who projected more as conservatives, even though the nomination of any of those candidates would have virtually handed the race to the Democratic nominee without much of a fight.
The makeup of the Democratic Party is predisposed towards nominating moderates, who are their strongest possible candidates. Republicans, on the other hand, are more likely to nominate folks in contested primaries who are too far to the right to be the most viable candidates in this increasingly centrist state.
Looking forward to a 2012 race for Governor and a 2014 race for Senate, Republicans may be best off clearing the field for the candidate they think has the best chance of knocking off an incumbent Democrat.
There are two pitfalls for a strong moderate Republican candidate in a contested primary. The most obvious one is that with a majority of the party’s voters identifying as conservatives, they may just throw electability completely out the window in a clear cut race between a hard right candidate and a more moderate one, and undercut their general election chances by nominating the conservative.
More likely, the moderate candidate may have to adopt a more conservative tone and issue positions to ensure a victory in the primary, but by extension open themselves to attacks of extremism from the Democratic moderate opponent in the general election. If Republican candidates are forced to pander to the right to get through the primary it weakens their general election chances.
Republicans are more likely to win in the general election with someone on the right flank of their party as a nominee than Democrats are with someone on the left flank of their party as a nominee. But both parties’ best chances for victory come from centrist candidates.