Thursday, November 7, 2013

Weak Tea: Moderation wins Election 2013


WE’VE GOTTEN accustomed to divided government, have for years now. That much is navigable, by virtue of our previous experience with the more civilized partisan divisions between Democrats and Republicans, or their antecedents. Given the checks-and-balances dynamic basic to American government, some amount of schizoid governance is pretty much unavoidable.

(And considering the proven perverse tendency for Americans to put one party in control of the White House and the other party in control of much of Congress, and then complain when nothing gets done, it’s also pretty much our own damn fault.)

But the current GOP presence in Congress is something else again. Besides the usual D vs. R skirmishes, we have a Republican Party that’s more and more divided within itself. The obstructionists and extremist heretics allied under the Tea Party banner are increasingly resistant to calls for legislative practicality from some comparative moderates in the mainstream GOP.

That infighting drama — a hardly epic battle to determine the defining identity of the Republican Party for at least the short-term future — may be playing to an increasingly empty hall (at the state level, anyway). Tuesday’s election results, four in particular, indicate that patience with the antics of The Tea Party faction of the Republican crew is wearing thin.

As centrist Republicans weigh the party’s prospects for next year and 2016, they’ve begun a pushback against Tea Party extremism and against the prevailing conservative ethos of isolation from the voters of a younger, browner, less ideologically reflexive, more culturally diverse national population. You know ... the voters they need to win.

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The Democratic victory in Virginia, a direct party-specific renunciation of the Tea Republican brand, speaks for itself. In his first run for election office, Democrat Terry McAuliffe won Tuesday’s election for governor, beating his Republican challenger, state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, in a 2-point squeaker, and gaining support from the commonwealth's women and African American voters, a strong enough showing from independents, and ... 4 percent of Republicans.

Since Cuccinelli got punched out, the conservative blame machinery has been working overtime finding fault for Cuccinelli’s loss. Analysts and right-wing media said that Cuccinelli lost the Virginia race because he didn’t raise enough money; that he lost because not enough national GOP figures flew in to shake his hand (or to hold it); that he lost because he waited too late to seize on a winning message; that he lost because of the controversy over outgoing governor Bob McDonnell’s addiction to trinkets and gifts; that he lost because he somehow wasn’t conservative enough.

Less frequently have you heard the real reasons: Ken Cuccinelli lost because he was a bad candidate, a man without a message, an ultraconservative in a state that’s long been anything but ultraconservative. Republicans in general, and the Tea Party cohort of Republicans in particular, may take a while coming around to those reasons, but they’re good ones.

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THE PUSHBACK on Tea Party politics is gathering steam where you least expect it. In Alabama, a deep southern state where you’d expect to find common cause with the Tea Party’s independent streak, attorney and moderate Republican Bradley Byrne defeated Tea Party stalwart Dean Young on Tuesday in the congressional runoff in the Alabama 1st.

The narrative was obvious: Byrne positioned himself as the adult in the room, ready to advance the interests of a business community eager for a Republican they could get behind. Young framed himself as a deep-red, passionate Tea Party loyalist, a friend of evangelicals pissed off with the federal government, a man prepared to take more of the Tea Party's irksome ritual rage to Washington.

Sean Sullivan of The Washington Post reported: “The campaign marked the first big electoral test for business-minded Republicans in their showdown with the GOP’s tea party wing. Riled by the recent government shutdown and standoff over the debt ceiling, the business wing of the party decided that it was time to fight back against the tea party insurgency. ...

“For business leaders, the victory in Alabama is a much-needed boost of momentum headed into 2014, when they will be looking to elect like-minded candidates to other seats across the map ...”

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Sometjmes, the Tea Party doesn’t even have to be on the ballot in order to be rebuffed. It has to be said: When you strip out the cult of personality that’s often built around a politician in office, the fact is that, absent wanton malfeasance or obvious incompetence, it’s hard to vote out an incumbent. Considering that, New Jersey’s Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s landslide win over Democratic challenger Barbara Buono was easily expected, despite the state’s history in the Democratic column. He had more money at his disposal. He had the name recognition that a sitting officeholder always enjoys.

But what gives Christie’s expected victory such surprising legs is the breadth of voters that made it possible. Christie swept every demographic of race, gender and age on Tuesday. He almost doubled his share of African American voters from his 2009 election, and increased his standing with women and seniors.

According to a Quinnipiac University poll of likely New Jersey voters the day before the election, “Christie leads 66 - 29 percent among men and 57 - 36 percent among women, 94 - 5 percent among Republicans and 64 - 29 percent among independent voters. He even gets 30 percent of Democrats, to Buono’s 64 percent.”

This is bigger than just reaping the dividends of incumbency. Chris Christie has tapped into at least the optics of outreach. Whether that’s exportable by the governor beyond New Jersey remains to be seen. But there’s a message for the Tea drinkers, if they’re listening: Electability matters.

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It sure as hell matters to moneyed Republican interests in Georgia, where former donors to the Romney 2012 campaign have made contributions to Michelle Nunn, a Democrat, Bloomberg reported on Oct. 30. Nunn, the daughter of former Democratic senator Sam Nunn, is running for the U.S. Senate seat to be vacated by retiring Republican Saxby Chambliss.

“The vast majority of Americans say they don’t want the government to shut down, they want middle ground,” said John Wieland, founder of John Wieland Homes and Neighborhoods, to Bloomberg’s Laura Litvan. “Michelle understands that middle ground, and that’s why we wrote the checks.”

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SOME IN the conservative priesthood haven’t gotten their heads around this idea yet. “Running toward the middle is the old paradigm,” Brent Bozell, the chairman of the ForAmerica conservative grassroots group, said to Beth Reinhard of The Atlantic. “Politics is solidifying and mobilizing your base—and the hell with the middle.”

Putting it charitably, Brent Bozell is out of his mind. The proof of that is as plain as Tuesday night’s results out of Virginia, New Jersey, Georgia and Alabama. It couldn’t be simpler to understand: Working the base, however aggressively, won’t always get you where you need to go in a statewide election (never mind a presidential). Pitching exclusively to the voters in your base is preaching to the choir. And if it’s the most ideologically inflexible members of the Republican base, that choir has fewer and fewer people in it all the time.

Sooner or later, reinforcing a political message among those already predisposed to favorably respond to it, without trying to broaden that core of reliable voters, is a formula for planned obsolescence. When you walk away from the middle, you walk away from the wide and deep cross-section of voters you need to win. You walk away from electability.

Tea Party Republicans found that out the hard way on Tuesday night.

Image credits: McAuliffe: CNN. Cuccinelli: Cliff Owen/Associated Press. Christie: News12 New Jersey via CNN. 

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