Where does the GOP go from here?
By Jamie Miller
After much hand-wringing about the election results, Republicans turn toward the task of rebuilding the GOP as a brand voters will trust. Many pundits ask, “Where does the GOP go from here?” I think the better question is, “Who will lead the GOP and in which direction?”
Pundits have already started looking toward the 2012 election while apparently ignoring the importance of the off-year 2010 elections and the redistricting which follows. If we ignore the redistricting process that will be in place for 2012, the GOP will certainly find itself in the minority throughout the next decade.
To understand where the GOP should go, we should examine some of the successes and failures of 2008. While Florida turned blue for the first time since 1996 when a very similar nominee – old, white, U.S. Senator – was defeated by Pres. Clinton. You will not win Florida with a nominee who is older than the average age of the guys playing golf on Wednesday mornings throughout the state.
In spite of that, Florida once again led the nation holding back a national tide that could have easily swept four GOP Congressman from office, flipped half a dozen state house districts, and switched at least two state senate seats to the Democratic side of the aisle.
There were two major battlegrounds within the battleground of Florida, Miami and Orlando. The last time the head of either ticket won Miami/Dade County by more than 100,000 votes was in 1996 when Pres. Clinton won the county by about 110,000 votes. As a general rule, Miami/Dade is won by about 30,000 – 40,000 votes. It is normally won by the Democrats in a Presidential year and Republicans during gubernatorial years. Sen. Obama won Miami/Dade County by nearly 140,000 votes. The Democrats targeted three GOP members of Congress in Miami/Dade and did not win any of those races. They targeted two in Orlando, and won them both after Orange county fell by 85,000 votes. Bill Clinton lost Orange County by 1,000 votes in 1996 and George W. Bush lost Orange County by about 2,000 votes in 2000. Republicans picked up the Mahoney seat which was lost in 2006 due to the courts not replacing Rep. Foley’s name on the ballot following his withdrawal from the race. A net loss of one Congressional seat in this environment was a huge victory especially since the Feeney campaign was mismanaged by both the candidate and the consultants involved.
Kudos, once again, to the Republican Party of Florida of staying focused on the issues they could control, raising the dollars needed to support state legislative candidates as well as the overall turnout effort, and keeping candidates on message through the use of new technologies. While the Florida Democratic Party made great strides in the ground game due to the influx of cash from the Obama Campaign, the GOP ground game kept a Democratic tsunami from sweeping the state.
There will likely be more comparisons made about the 2008 McCain Campaign with the 1996 Dole Campaign, in Florida there are many more similarities to the 2000 Bush Campaign. The greatest similarity between 2008 and 2000 in Florida seemed to be that the national campaign failed to listen to Florida election experts including those at the Republican Party of Florida. As much as people like me tried to encourage the McCain campaign to invest in Florida early, they seemed to rely on the coattails of a popular governor who was not on the ballot. The same mistake was made in 2000 because “the brother” was governor of the state.
Crist won an overwhelming victory in 2006 and few pundits in the state or the country believed he was going to lose the race for governor to Jim Davis. Crist won by seven points with 52 percent of the vote. The other competitive statewide race in 2006 was the race for attorney general where Bill McCollum won by five points with nearly the same 52 percent of the vote. These were both races that ended up being “blow-outs” for competitive, statewide races. It stands to reason that the best McCain could’ve done in Florida is about a five or six point win with 52 percent of the vote. He certainly wasn’t running a race that anyone thought was a “blow-out.” So, I question, “Why did the McCain Campaign take Florida for granted?”
Several Florida election experts, were quoted in major daily newspapers weeks and months before the election encouraging the McCain campaign to spend more on television in Florida. While the GOP ground game in Florida is among the best in the country, it was not going to help the top of the ticket that was being outspent on television by 5 – 1.
The biggest blunder of the campaign came when McCain “suspended” his campaign to focus on the economic crisis and then failed to show any type of leadership whatsoever after going to D.C. Americans expected leadership from the GOP nominee and none was shown.
I think that the national GOP needs to look to the states to return to a track where voters and more importantly the public trusts the Republican brand.
That’s why I did not disagree with the pick of Gov. Palin as the nominee for vice president. But, the campaign mismanaged and misunderstood the “Palin Effect.” Her job was to secure the 28 percent of voters who still believe that Pres. George W. Bush hangs the moon while McCain’s job was to continue to generate support from moderates and independents. That’s why it would be a mistake for the GOP to look toward Palin as the leader who gets Republicans back on track. I’m sure Palin has a role within our Party, but if she becomes the leader or spokesperson for the GOP, we could be regulated to a Party that is on the margins of the far right and be nothing more than a 28 percent party for a generation.
The Republican Party needs a leader I call a “Realistic Conservative.” We need a leader who appeals to the base but realizes that he/she must be elected and govern from the ever-growing middle.
I am not suggesting that the Party abandon core principles but to reapply them in a realistic manner. For instance, we should remain a pro-life party, but we should refocus our attention on children who are already here and suffering from homelessness, lack of education, lack of health and dental care, hunger or who are the victims of child predators. These are the children who truly need our help and people who we can help right now.
When dealing with the pro-life vs. pro-choice debate, the GOP needs a leader who understands the reality and the history of what Americans believe are “rights.” Basically, once a generation believes that something, anything, is a right, they will not give it up. We did not accept prohibition in the 1920s. We didn’t accept and won’t accept privatization of Social Security. We won’t let an obtrusive government confiscate our guns or limit gun rights. Americans, likewise, are not going to outlaw abortions after a generation of women has had them, fathers have paid for them for their daughters, and the majority of people believe in some type of abortion being legal even if it is for rape, incest, or the life of the mother. The GOP needs to focus on the children we can help who are here and need it now!
We need to be realistic about health care in this country. If a private company wants to offer health care to same-sex or domestic partners, we should applaud their efforts not boycott them. The more people covered by health care in this country, the better off we all are going to be. I do not think this has to be defined as “marriage,” but let’s be realistic about it. These days, marriage is just as much about a financial commitment between two people as it is a religious commitment. So, while we should defend “traditional marriage” as a religious ceremony, we need to be realistic that Americans expect us to lead on issues that affect them personally on a daily basis.
Republicans should continue to be leaders who will defend attacks on the second amendment and should continue to support our troops and military in every way. I have long been an opponent of Obama’s plan to give those who are in the Peace Corps the same benefits as those in the military because I believe it undermines the service of our men and women who are in harm’s way, and I believe that it will inevitably lead to a draft. As the father of two draft-age sons, I don’t want my children to be forced to fight for a President if they don’t believe in him.
We need a leader who will focus on the opportunities of 2010 while positioning the Party for 2012. This means not forgetting who we are as Americans first. We should realize that because Obama comes up with an idea, it doesn’t mean that we should fight it for the sake of fighting it. Specifically, we should applaud Obama’s efforts to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, but should fight his efforts to establish another bureaucracy to try the inmates who are there. The inmates there are either “Indefinite Prisoners of War” or they have committed a crime against America. They should either be given the rights of a POW or should be tried in an American Court for their transgressions.
We need to remember that executive orders are laws signed by the President without the authority of Congress. We should recognize these opportunities to show distinctions between our Party and the Obama Administration, but we shouldn’t whine about Obama’s use of them overturning Bush’s executive orders. If President Bush wanted them to be laws that lasted long past his administration he should have presented them to and fought for them in Congress.
The GOP has to remember to save our ammunition for the big fights – appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court. The more moderate we appear before the public now, the more Americans will recognize that we are making legitimate arguments when Obama tries to appoint extreme liberals to the U.S. Supreme Court. The more moderate we are on the “small stuff,” the more credibility we will have fighting the big battles.
We need to realize that the Bush family has had a stranglehold on our Party for more than 30 years and its time for a change. This is going to take a lot of leadership, fortitude and vision. Since George H.W. Bush became RNC Chairman in the 70s, there has hardly been a time since when one of the Bush allies was not the head of the RNC. This past election was a repudiation of not only the current Bush Administration but the entire Bush family and their allies as national leaders. It’s time for the GOP to look in a different direction for our next generation of leaders.
The GOP needs to continue to build and cultivate its farm team in state, county and city governments so we have experienced, established candidates who can successfully run for state and then federal offices. This is yet another example of how the nation could turn to Florida for leadership. The state Republican Party has long supported not only local Republican Executive Committees but also supported local candidates as well.
We need to start training candidates sooner because the challenge of raising the necessary dollars to be competitive during not only an Obama Presidency but also during an economic downturn will be daunting. The GOP must expand not only its major-donor program but needs to give Internet and small donors a reason to donate to the cause. Obama, likely, will give these donors a reason sooner rather than later, but we can’t wait on an Obama miscue. He’s made very few and our roadmap must include a vision that appeals to a broader base of people.
Republicans need to recruit, train and advise potential candidates about raising their community profiles through volunteerism and community activism.
The GOP needs to reach out to organizations with complimentary visions that will likely be hurt by a Democratic stranglehold on the federal government so we can be pro-active with a coordinated candidate recruitment process.
Finally, the GOP needs to realize that the mechanics of elections are changing and we need to change our communication methods to be successful. Sen. McCain did not lose Florida because Gov. Crist expanded early voting. If that were the case, we would’ve seen increased voter turnout and that simply wasn’t the case. McCain lost Florida because he failed to bring a message directly to the voters of Florida in the media with which they want to receive it.
Television is still going to be the main mechanism to deliver messages but we have to start utilizing technologies that are available today like text messaging, micro-blogging and social media to get information in the hands of activists nationwide instantly.
The challenges for the GOP are great and in the face of a federal government that is controlled completely by Democrats, the challenge for Republicans to be relevant will be even greater.
One thing is clear, we need to listen to the American people and adjust our vision of the Party so we represent challenging view points that they are willing to accept as reasonable. Our leadership should reflect our conservative views with a realistic view of what can be accomplished, how we can accomplish it, and with new leaders who emphasize that vision.
Jamie Miller is a political consultant who specializes in campaign strategy, candidate development, and crisis communications. Miller is a former executive director for the Republican Party of Florida. E-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.