What are the things Virginia Republicans can learn from this past election? Hint: It’s not that we all need to turn into Chris Christie in order to win.
Note: I use the term “establishment” in this post loosely, as a shorthand descriptor for a segment of the Republican Party that is distinct from (and, to an extent, disdains) the “Tea Party”/Religious Right/Ron Paul segments of the party. You know what I mean by it, so please don’t get your knickers in a twist about the semantics.
Flawed Narrative: Tea Party vs. The “Establishment”
The desired media/GOP establishment narrative about this past election cycle was shaping up even well before election day. Chris Christie was way ahead in the pre-election polls in New Jersey, while “Tea Party favorite” Ken Cuccinelli was struggling in Virginia, with some polls showing double-digit deficits to sleazy huckster Terry McAuliffe. This apparent contrast was offered as proof that the GOP needs to moderate in both tone and substance to win elections, and that the pragmatic, deal-making style of Christie reveals the path for the party to make its way out of the electoral wilderness.
In Virginia, this analysis of the situation is amplified by the schism between Cuccinelli and Lt. Governor Bill Bolling, who failed to support his party after the Republican Party’s State Central Committee changed the 2013 nomination method from a primary to a convention. (Full disclosure: I was among the members of the State Central Committee who voted this way). Bolling himself, who after the nomination fight has positioned himself in contrast to Cuccinelli as a “mainstream conservative,” said after the election that “there are clear lessons” to be gained from Tuesday’s losses, hinting in no uncertain terms that the brand of conservatism embraced by the Virginia GOP this year is the cause of our problems.
These and other analyses miss the mark by a wide margin, for reasons set forth below. What they get right, though, is that we Virginia Republicans do need to think hard about ways to avoid what happened this year, a year in which all the fundamentals were in our favor but we lost anyway. Here are the right lessons to take from this election:
1. Conservatism still wins.
First, consider that Chris Christie won by cutting taxes, taking on public sector unions, and reforming runaway liberal government. Sure, his style is different than that of most conservatives, and maybe there is something we can learn from his ability to communicate in common sense, non-threatening ways. But the core of his message is still fundamentally conservative. Further, in Virginia and elsewhere, a much greater portion of the population identify themselves as conservative or conservative-leaning than they do liberal or moderate.
In Virginia, Cuccinelli faced remarkably steep hurdles. I won’t go into the manifold shortcomings of the campaign (a subject explored at length elsewhere, both before and after the election). But it’s worth noting that even with a campaign that made a number of key mistakes, it came pretty close–a lot close than most observers would have guessed–to overcoming a ridiculously large funding gap and the backstabbers within the GOP. One thing the pundits got right: it was Cuccinelli’s clear, conservative message on Obamacare in the last two weeks that helped him close that gap. For all the millions spent painting Ken Cuccinelli as woman-hating extremist “tea bagger,” it was a return to conservative ideas that nearly saved Cuccinelli.
2. The GOP needs all of its coalition to win.
In contrast to most other major Western governments, ours is not amenable to third parties, particularly with respect to executive branch elections. That’s because ours is not a parliamentary system where minority parties can form a coalition government. Here in the U.S., the winner takes all and the losers get absolutely nothing.
Instead of forming vibrant parties that stand a decent chance of joining a ruling coalition, here in the U.S. those coalitions must be formed WITHIN one of the major parties to have anything other than a spoiler impact. These coalition dynamics were on full display in Virginia this year, in two important ways.
First, the so-called “establishment” wing sat on their hands this cycle. Not all of them, of course, but there were plenty of folks who thought it would be OK to sit on the sidelines carping about what’s wrong with the party (in no small part because a major leader within the party, Bill Bolling, made it somewhat fashionable to do so). In its most extreme forms, this led to some units essentially abandoning the ticket in their grassroots work, focusing on House of Delegates races and the Obenshain campaign. Among the Chamber of Commerce crowd and the Bobbie Kilbergs of the world, this also meant active and open opposition to our candidates.
Second, one of the big distractions of the campaign was the Libertarian Party candidacy of Robert Sarvis. Most pre-election polling showed Cuccinelli being severely harmed by defection of Republican voters to the Sarvis camp. Cuccinelli and his backers (including me) spent a lot of time convincing those voters to come back to the fold, which appears to have worked: Sarvis got much less support than he was projected to get, and what he did get appears to have drawn more from McAuliffe. Ultimately, then, it appears that the libertarian wing largely stayed put behind Cuccinelli, the most liberty-minded major party candidate in our lifetimes. Voters who backed Sarvis tended to not know a thing about his policy positions, and went there as a protest against the mud-covered alternatives.
3. Libertarians are increasingly essential to the GOP.
If it accomplished nothing else, the Sarvis campaign (jump-started by Democrats) showed an easy and very effective way to split the vote on the right. You can expect to see more of the same in Virginia and elsewhere unless Republicans act to take the wind out of those efforts. That means we need to expand our Big Tent to include (and welcome) the liberty movement, and give them the respect they deserve for being a key part of our winning coalition.
Don’t think this is true? Then consider that according to the exit polls, Cuccinelli won the youth vote. This greater margin than we usually see wasn’t because 20-somethings found Cuccinelli’s education plan compelling–they come to us via the liberty movement. I don’t have solid data, but if you doubt this, just ask any college student about which is more socially accepted on campus, a pro-life libertarian, or a pro-life conservative. The libertarian identity is growing and unless we want a ticket-splitting party for a generation, we’ll adjust our attitudes accordingly and make a home for these folks inside our tent.
4. We MUST figure out how to talk about abortion.
Like it or not, the War on Women meme is now a permanent feature of Democrat campaigns. That’s because it works. Just ask Mitt Romney and Ken Cuccinelli. Democrats have proved that they will lie shamelessly to keep as many women (especially single women) from supporter the GOP as possible, and the media have proved that the Democrats can do so with impunity.
I don’t know what the right approach is here. But I do know what the wrong approach is, and that’s the two varieties of responses to these attacks that the Cuccinelli campaign adopted: the “deer in the headlights” response (wherein Republicans are visibly stymied and incapable of responding) or the complete lack of response at all (in which, like Cuccinelli in his debate performances, charges are leveled without response, leaving viewers to conclude the charges must be true).
Memo to General Assembly members: please avoid giving the other side any opportunity for the other side to use the word “transvaginal” in a television ad.
5. Don’t blame the nominating method.
One constant refrain I hear from “establishment” types is that “We got what we deserved this year” because of the choice to nominate by a convention. The thinking behind this critique is that only extremist conservatives undertake the effort necessary to participate in nominating conventions, which then naturally nominate kooks and losers without appeal to the broader electorate. But this misdiagnoses the problem. Cuccinelli didn’t lose because he was too conservative, but arguably because he wasn’t conservative enough, for long enough. And the alternative, primaries, don’t exactly have a great track record recently either.
The fact is that the entry barriers associated with primaries are used to disadvantage the voters’ ability to have a meaningful choice (was there any chance anyone other than George Allen was going to win the 2012 primary? No, which is why he pushed very early to have the State Central Committee choose a primary). You still want to switch back to a primary for next year’s election? Get used to the idea of Tom Davis as our nominee (nice guy, but only with the GOP base about 3/4ths of the time).
The real solution to concerns about the dynamics of a convention is to participate. There’s nothing that a good, solid candidate should fear about a convention. If Bill Bolling had actually contested this last convention, the outcome would have been much better for all involved. Bolling would either be our nominee, or a respected elder statesman with the love and admiration of the party. We’d have had more competition to improve our eventual nominees. We’d have had larger armies of volunteers engaged ahead of the general election. We’d likely have better vetting of our candidates, so that we’re not hit with surprising later revelations about our nominees. And, we’d be much more likely to have put up a united front, without giving Terry McAuliffe the gift of a split party where one half believes the other half is “extremist.”