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.
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.
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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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.”
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.