Lessons Learned for the 2012 Elections
by Tom Donelson on September 19, 2011 at 11:23 AM
In the fourth episode of the Star Wars series, there is a scene in which Hans Solo tells Luke Skywalker good job after Luke nails a fighter, and then adds, “Don’t get cocky, kid.” This is one lesson that Republicans and conservatives should take from the Tuesday's Special Election, don’t get cocky.
The recent Nevada and New York elections have national lessons for both Parties just as the previous special election in New York's 26th and California's 36th district held lessons that still need to be digested. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, social issues matters and most wedge issues favor Republicans; something that most Republican consultants and Leftist pundits often pretends don’t exist. For most Americans, it is the economy, stupid, but for quite a few folks, wedge issues matter, whether it is the state of marriage, abortion or gun rights. In New York, same sex marriage not only matters, but in New York's 9th district, it matters more to those who oppose same sex marriage and it caused enough Democrats to leave their own Party and vote Republican!
Another aspect is that each election is different and conventional wisdom from past elections doesn’t always apply. The biggest problem for any political Party is to recruit candidates for office and this can prove as problematic as a NFL team drafting quarterbacks. In 2009, who would have predicted that Marco Rubio or Bob Johnson would have proved to be not only strong candidates, despite inexperience, on a statewide level, but be even better as United States Senators? The answer was no one, considering the GOP had already committed the Party to supporting Charlie Crist's Senate candidacy and dismissed Rubio. (In Wisconsin, there was effort to recruit former governor Tommy Thompson, who decided not to run.) What we found out in the 2010 congressional elections was Rubio proved to be a charismatic candidate and a potential Republican super star while Crist showed to be a disloyal flake of a candidate. In Wisconsin, Bob Johnson ran a near flawless campaign against veteran Russ Feingold, and one example of this was his ability to defend his own entitlement reforms against Feingold's attacks. The only way we find out about a candidate is when they run for office, just as a NFL team finds out about a quarterback prospect when they actually play on the field.
Money is important, but not the only factor. In many of the special elections, Republicans were often outspent by Democrats and the recent New York congressional special election was a good example as the Democrats outspent the Republicans by a 10 to 1 margin over the last week. The biggest concern for the GOP is that in many blue states, the state party is disorganized and underfunded. In California, Craig Huey made the 36th district a competitive race simply because he self-funded his campaign. There was little money within the State party to fund the race nor was there a real desire from the national Party to put money into the effort. I understand funds are limited and sometimes, money has to put in races where there is a bigger pay out, but other times it is not a bad strategy to force another Party to put significant funds into defending their territory. Money spent in California is money not spent in Ohio.
Money could be offset by enthusiasm but money does matter. In Wisconsin, the left for the past year have spent millions to stop Scott Walker reform and those efforts included trying to oust a sitting judge in a retention election and recall efforts to vote out Republicans in an effort to overturn the 2010 election. The Republicans were saved by the initial positive results of Walker reforms and Grass roots enthusiasm but the GOP can’t always count on enthusiasm to over come a lack of funding.
For the left, the campaign does not end on Election Day, but continues until they are satisfied with the results. The left believes in the continuous campaign with negative results to be overturned by any means possible, and the right is now learning that lesson as some groups have begun to run their ads supporting free market and conservative positions.
Bob Turner in is his victory showed how to build a winning coalition by combining foreign policy, social conservatism and free market economics in a blue congressional district. He talked economics as his primary concern, and the social issues were actually covered by other forces within the District. Organization like the National Organization of Marriage along with local Democrats tackled the issue and Turner let it be known; he supported their cause but he did not make it his number one issue. His support for Israel allowed him to oppose Obama on an issue that many of constituents agreed with him. His opponent tried to separate himself from Obama, but Turner's point was the President threatened Israel; and his opponent could not escape Obama’s shadow.
Each district or state will be different, but both Turner and Mark Amodei in Nebraska's 2nd district learned how to blunt Democratic Mediscare tactics. (Amodei even included ads with his mother to show that he wanted to save Medicare, not destroy it.) This was one lesson from the New York 26th district special election where the GOP lost due to Republican candidate failure to defend the Republican budget and Republican plan to reform Medicare.
National Review Online Jim Geraghty noted that the Republican victory in New York could mean fifty Democratic seats that in the past considered safe may be competitive. Finally on the "don’t get cocky" thought, Pollster Glen Bolger noted that Republicans need to start thinking about those nine states captured by Bush in 2004 but flipped to Obama in 2008. Those states are Colorado, Nevada, Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, New Mexico, Indiana, Iowa and Florida. In six of those states, Obama has a higher disapproval rate, making them likely recaptures, but there are two states, Florida and Iowa, Obama still has a higher approval rate than voters’ disapproval, and in North Carolina, he is still even. Eight of those nine states have significant minority population that proved decisive in 2008, and could be Obama's saving grace in 2012. There is much work to do.