The endless navel gazing following significant GOP losses in the last election is far from over, and not all of it is pointless. We have people talking about significant policy changes in the platform to make the Republican brand more salable in national races, as well as ideas geared toward expanding the tent and bringing in a more diverse voter base. But Scott Rasmussen has a new editorial out this week where he believes he’s identified another issue to be tackled. There are, as he states rather directly, a number of “establishment GOP” types in D.C. who seem to have determined that the big problem with the Republican Party is all of those Republican voters.
Politico explained that while Washington Democrats have always viewed GOP voters as a problem, Washington Republicans “in many a post-election soul-searching session” have come to agree. More precisely, the article said the party’s Election 2012 failures have “brought forth one principal conclusion from establishment Republicans: They have a primary problem.”
As seen from the halls of power, the problem is that Republican voters think it’s OK to replace incumbent senators and congressman who don’t represent the views of their constituents. In 2012, for example, Republican voters in Indiana dumped longtime Sen. Richard Lugar in a primary battle.
This infuriated establishment Republicans for two reasons. First, because they liked Lugar and the way he worked. Second, because the replacement candidate was flawed and allowed Democrats to win what should have been a safe Republican seat.
Scott goes on to say that observers are noticing a growing inclination in beltway GOP power centers to circle the wagons and make it harder for the unwashed masses to mount primary challenges to their media tested selections and proven winners. And I agree with his assessment that this is a fine strategy if your only concern is winning. But at what cost?
Before we get too carried away, let’s not throw the whole “winning” baby out with the bathwater here. If you don’t win, you don’t get to govern. But if your base feels that you’ve lost sight of your principles in the effort to win, they won’t turn out for you and the process becomes a self-defeating death spiral. By the same token, as difficult as it may be for some folks to accept, it is undeniable that the professional political class – or “the elite” as so many of you like to say – bring some important skills to the table.
Chief among these is the mountain of background research, tools, resources and experience required to conduct extensive vetting of new entrants to the political ring. While a rising red tide of grassroots enthusiasm for a new face is not only useful, but vital to a big win, the excitable hoi polloi are also frequently lacking in the ability to sort the wheat from the chaff. Critics like to point to some of the really high profile losers such as Christine O’Donnell whenever this discussion comes up, but it happens at lower levels all across the nation.
In a race which went virtually unreported, the newly redrawn NY-22 district saw a Tea Party challenge in the 2012 primary to a GOP incumbent who was viewed as being too far to the left. The challenger they selected was a local Tea Party leader who turned out to be an unemployed guy who had failed to even be elected mayor in his home village and had supposedly lost an earlier business he started for not paying his taxes. In this case it turned out that the incumbent went on to win the primary in a landslide and then beat the Democrat by a similar margin. But what if he hadn’t? A seat in a reliably Republican leaning district could have once again been lost and gone to a flunky of the previous Democratic incumbent once all the news came fully to light during the general election race.
That’s just one cautionary tale among many. So how does this relate to the point that Rasmussen is making? He offers hints of a solution which should be worth a look.
Mature party leaders would spend a lot more time listening to Republican voters rather than further insulating themselves from those voters. They would try to understand why just 37 percent of Republicans nationwide believe the economy is fair. They would give serious thought to why just half of GOP voters have a favorable opinion of House Speaker John Boehner, the highest-ranking elected Republican in the nation. They would acknowledge that government spending in America has gone up in every year since 1954 regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats are in charge.
Then mature party leaders would chart a realistic course to address these concerns and share those plans with the voters. To succeed, this course would have to include some painful medicine for the establishment, such as giving up corporate welfare programs that benefit their friends and allies. It also would require helping Republican voters identify primary candidates who challenge the establishment but could be effective on the campaign trail.
Tying these points together, D.C. Republican leaders can still hold on to their power and influence if they listen to those they are ostensibly leading and then use the tools at their disposal to work with grass roots activists rather than against them. If the voters are unhappy with an incumbent, fine. Don’t just fight them by backing the incumbent with unlimited money and then act sullen toward the challenger if they win. The better course is to get to work vetting the potential choices being put forth by the grass roots, pointing out lethal flaws if they exist and helping them identify challengers who are both ideologically palatable to the base and electable in the general race. It means not simply tamping down the impulse to keep fighting to the death for the status quo, but also demonstrating the strength to stand up to activists who are making untenable choices and saying, “Look, we hear you. But that’s not going to work. Let’s find someone who will.”
Or is that just crazy talk?