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Ron Radosh

The Meaning of the Republican Victory

November 4th, 2009 - 9:25 am

The election is over, and one thing is clear. Despite the attempt of the Democratic spin machine to claim that their defeat is a victory — that Republicans won the gubernatorial race in Virginia and New Jersey because of local issues alone, and that their party does not have to worry about the future — they have suffered a rousing defeat. Local issues, combined with growing unpopularity with Obama and in particular the ObamaCare health proposals, led to Republican victory.

America remains a center-right — and not a center-left — nation. Remember, in New Jersey, Obama did all he could to try and guarantee Corzine’s success. He appeared with him over and over, and tried to attach his popularity to that of the governor whose own ratings were quickly tanking to the lowest digits. It didn’t work. Christie won 50% of the vote, and Corzine got a meager 44% in a state that went overwhelmingly for Obama in 2008. How Democrats can ignore this rather obvious conclusion is an issue for the psychologists, not for election analysts.

Yet, Republicans and conservatives too have to carefully evaluate the meaning of the results, and refrain from reaching conclusions that are not warranted. On this point, I second the analysis offered today by my PJM colleague, Roger L. Simon. The reason Doug Hoffman lost in the NY 23rd Congressional District is that he ran as a purist of the take no enemies Right — that believes simple continual statements of the most far right conservative principles, particularly emphasizing so-called social conservative issues like opposition to abortion and to gay rights, would be the path to electoral triumph.

Instead, moderate and centrist voters who likely would have supported a Republican conservative like, let us say, Joe Scarborough — fiscally conservative and socially libertarian — or would have voted for the winning Bob McDonnell in Virgina, deserted the once solid Republican bastion (in that column since the end of the Civil War) and voted instead for the Democrat Bill Owens. In Virginia, although McDonnell is a traditional conservative, he downplayed the social issues and ran an effective campaign that stressed issues like transportation and jobs — issues that moderates and centrists are deeply worried about.

Here, we can learn from the analysis of a left-wing journalist like John B. Judis who writes today on TNR’s website:

If the results of New York’s 23rd are placed alongside those of New Jersey and Virginia, there is a clear lesson for the Republicans. In New Jersey and Virginia, the gubernatorial candidates ran to the center. Christie is a moderate, and McDonnell at least pretended to be. And as a result, they got the swing vote of independents and moderates. In New York-23, a diehard conservative backed by rightwing groups repudiated the center and lost to a neophyte Democratic candidate who probably could not have beaten Scozzafava in a one-to-one contest.

It is one thing for the conservative base to prove its strength and mettle by challenging the back room Republican club that picked Scozzafava in the first place, and to repudiate their choice by proving that that their concerns had to be taken into account. It is also true that Scozzafava was more of a traditional liberal Democrat than a moderate Republican — despite Judis’ characterization of her, and that made last Sunday by Frank Rich in The New York Times. When a leftist columnist like Rich approves of someone like Scozzafava, one can be certain that such a candidate is not any kind of a conservative.

But nevertheless, Judis has a point. If Republicans want to win, they cannot confuse the views of their most far Right elements with that of the electorate to which they seek to appeal; they need candidates of the center-right who address their constituents’ concerns, and who do not turn away potential moderates and centrists whose margin of votes could guarantee their electoral victory.

To win in the future, Republicans need the kind of swing voters fed up with Obama’s domestic policies, and they certainly, as Judis puts it, cannot “operate out of a sectarian mentality borne out of political frustration and marginality.”  This is also the point made in the new issue of Commentary by David Frum, who offers us some lessons from the revival of conservative political growth in Britain. Frum writes, “while upholding your principles, align your priorities with the priorities of the country at large.” Mobilizing a base is important, he concedes, but at the same time, “as when recovering from a debacle, you need to reach out.”

McDonnell did just that in Virginia; Hoffman in the 23rd District in NY did not. As Judis shows, a public policy poll revealed “another interesting correlation. The poll shows McDonnell winning 15 percent of the electorate that voted for Obama in 2008, and 13 percent of Democrats disapproving of the job that Obama is doing in office. That suggests that Democrats who disapproved of Obama were likely to vote for McDonnell. This is not to say that disapproval of Obama doomed Deeds; only that it may have been a factor in the defeat of Deeds and other Democrats on the statewide ticket.”

Hence Frum’s important conclusion: “The leader you want is someone who appeals to the voters you need to gain, not the voters you already have.” Six percent of today’s electorate- self proclaimed conservative Democrats-may be ready and willing to vote Republican when faced with a Democratic liberal, but their vote is not enough to counter the 15% of educated white women — Democratic voters — who will not join them. As Frum puts it, “It is foolhardy to choose leaders who woo the first group if they repel the latter.”

At this point, it is more than possible that Obama can be a one-term president. Those who hope that that this will be so should carefully ponder the lessons learned today, and not be carried away by a premature triumphalism.

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