The AP headline is “Republican gathering in Waikiki comes at a time of internal strife” — but the Republican National Committee is meeting in Honolulu January 27-30 in a world suddenly reshaped by Scott Brown’s paradigm-shattering victory in Massachusetts. AP’s headline writer can only dream.
For RNC Chairman Michael Steele, Brown’s victory couldn’t have come at a better time. Steele’s mission is to expand the reach of the Republican Party into districts and states generally considered Democrat strongholds. This is the opposite of the strategy of energizing the base which gave George W. Bush an exquisitely narrow victory in 2000 and a 2.4% margin of victory in 2004 — an election year which Ann Coulter and others have argued should have seen a Bush landslide.
“Red Invades Blue: Take Massachusetts,” read the Scott Brown “money bomb” website — which pulled in $1 million a day on the approach to the January 19 Senate special election. Steele’s strategy was given credibility by victories in last November’s Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races. But Republican victory in the most liberal state in the union is the kind of lightning bolt needed to seal the case.
Coming to Hawaii, Steele is looking for a second lightning bolt to once again shock what he sees as old, outdated ideas about political possibilities. A three-way special election on or about May 1 for Hawaii’s First Congressional District (CD1, urban Honolulu) pits Republican Honolulu councilman and Army Reserve officer Charles Djou against two Democrats — former CD2 Rep. Ed Case and Senate President Colleen Hanabusa. Speaking to a mix of local and national Republican activists at the “RNC island summit,” Steele said: “Why is the RNC going to Hawaii? Because we intend to win in Hawaii.”
Held in Barack Obama’s home district, the Hawaii CD1 will likely be the last special election before November 2. Just as Massachusetts elected Republican Governor Mitt Romney, Hawaii’s First Congressional District has voted Republican in every gubernatorial race since 1994. Bush won 47% of the district in 2004. Djou would be the first Republican to win the congressional seat since Rep. Pat Saiki left to run for Senate in 1990, making way for the election of Rep. Neil Abercrombie, dubbed “D-Hezbollah” by those who know his record. Abercrombie, who started his political career as a hippie transplant from Buffalo, is leaving Congress to challenge Republican Lt. Governor Duke Aiona in the gubernatorial race November 2.
Steele is getting support in return from blue-state Republicans. At the RNC summit Tuesday, Aiona said: “I don’t think he [Steele] gets enough credit for what has happened in the last few months on the national scene.”
Term limits prevent Hawaii’s Republican Governor Linda Lingle from running for reelection. Asked about her political plans, she said, “My future plans are to get Charles elected to Congress and Duke elected governor.” Pressed on the possibility of a Senate run beyond 2010, Lingle added, “It [is] a good time to take a break and gain some perspective. There are ways to serve outside politics. It doesn’t mean I’ll never run again — I might.”
In the wake of last November’s debacle in NY-23, a handful of the 168 RNC delegates are reportedly proposing a resolution demanding that Republican candidates pass a ten-point ideological test in order to receive party financial and technical support. Dubbing it a “purity test,” liberal media were quick to pick up the story.
Washington insiders were all aflutter in the second week of January over the possibility that another small group of RNC delegates may advance a motion of censure against Steele for writing and publishing his book, Right Now: A 12-Step Program for Defeating the Obama Agenda. They claim the book was produced behind the backs of the RNC, although a quick glance at the book’s cover shows that Sean Hannity, Bill Bennett, Mark Levin, Newt Gingrich, and the conservative-oriented Regnery publishing house knew all about it. To the dismay of liberal media everywhere, it appears that this issue will not even come up in the closed RNC sessions.
In Honolulu Tuesday, Steele did not directly mention the kerfuffle. He seemed to refer indirectly to these reports when he told the summit, “It’s time for all the petty bickering to stop.” But what is the underlying issue?
Steele’s book argues that Republicans cannot continue to win elections based on intense mobilization of base GOP voters. Republicans need to direct their message and resources towards winning elections in traditionally Democratic areas. This is why the New Jersey and Massachusetts victories are of such importance.
While warning against calls for “ideological purity,” Steele argues:
Don’t believe the pundits’ common refrain that the Republican Party has moved too far to the right. In reality, the problem is that we’ve been moving to the left. Here’s why we’ve fallen out of touch with typical Americans: we’ve acquiesced to big government, big spending, and increased federal control that diminishes the authority of families and the rights of individuals. On entitlements, education, health care, immigration — even occasionally on free speech, free association, and free markets — we have compromised, caved, and collapsed.
Without using the words, Steele describes the Gramscian assault on Tocquevillian America and its effect on the GOP:
It’s understandable how we got here: check the newspapers, the TV, and the internet. The last decade has seen a withering and unyielding assault on all things conservative — a fire hose blast of invective, name calling, and abuse from every angle. It has been exhausting to be a conservative!
But the fact that the fight is hard does not excuse us from combat.
In the forward to Steele’s book, Newt Gingrich writes, “‘Don’t tell me it can’t be done’ is the perfect battle cry for Republicans.”
In 2008, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, former CEO of the Hudson Institute, won 20% of the black vote — four times McCain’s percentage — and beat Obama’s vote totals in Indiana college towns. He did it not by changing his conservatism but by “making the ask.” Applying that kind of effort in non-traditional demographics is the key to Steele’s strategy.
Working to seek voters among a 90% Democrat community may seem an exercise in Republican futility, but in a democracy, it is an inherently unstable arrangement for 90% of any electorate to consistently vote one way. Black voters tip the balance in favor of Democrats in Missouri, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Delaware, and Maryland. Republicans need only gain 20-30% of the black vote to dramatically shift the balance of power in some or all of these states. Counterintuitively and in spite of race hustlers’ best efforts, the election of Obama makes it more possible to win support for conservative ideas among black voters because it is more difficult to argue that African-Americans cannot fully take part in the American dream when a black person has been elected president.
We may be witnessing the end of a chapter of American political history which began with the 1968 Nixon campaign and the falsely maligned “southern strategy” — which drew southern whites away from their previous role as enforcers of the color bar. In place of this demographically dwindling base, Steele is forging a conservatism which directs its appeal to a broader audience than the one inherited four decades ago from the civil-rights-induced collapse of Democrats’ segregationist political machines throughout the south and in northern cities.
Considering the enormity of this shift, it is a wonder that there is so little sniping going on.