2010 Midterms: What Did We Learn?

Now that the 2010 midterms are over I finally have time to write again, and there is no better topic than last week’s election results. Republicans made gains all over the nation in Congress, Governor’s Mansions and countless state legislatures, as voters sent a clear message of fiscal conservatism to Washington. The pundits have all weighed in, and it seems the general consensus is that the Republican wave swept through the country, halting at the Rockies, and leaving Nevada and California with their seemingly unpopular Senators Harry Reid and Barbara Boxer. The end result, at the time of this writing, is a 64-seat gain for the GOP in the House, and a 5-seat gain in the Senate. This puts an end to the Democrat super-majority in the House, and its rubber-stamp U.S. Senate.

Many are left wondering what impact the Tea Party had on races across the country, why candidates like Carl Paladino, Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle were unsuccessful, and what the future has in store for the Republican Party. The real question is: Why did key Senate candidates lose, and what will we learn from their mistakes?

The Tea Party

The Tea Party at face value is an amazing movement. It confronted fiscal policy, engaged voters across the country, and promoted candidates who focused on economic issues and fiscally conservative solutions. The movement cared very little about the two major parties or establishment candidates. Instead, it placed the most value on those candidates who realized the seriousness of our economic conditions, and pledged to work toward a solution that stops out of control spending, creates the economic conditions for job growth, and refuses to allow unions and other special interests to dictate policy. There is little doubt that the energy created by the Tea Party movement is largely responsible for the success of the minority party, in this case the GOP, as evidenced by the sheer number of victories. The movement, however, is not permanently aligned with Republicans. This means that 2012 will be a very interesting year if the GOP does not follow through with their promises to voters.

Some self-identified Tea Party candidates were not successful on Election Night, namely Carl Paladino in New York, Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, and Sharron Angle in Nevada. These three candidates have a lot in common, believe it or not. Each candidate won their GOP primary by defeating an establishment candidate, all three of these Tea Party characters committed gaffe after gaffe right up until Election Day, and they all found more support from outside their home states than inside.

Taking on the Establishment

In the Empire State, Gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio was a pro-choice moderate who supports affirmative action and domestic partnerships, but opposes taxpayer-funded abortion, same-sex marriage, and repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. He is best known nationally as the man Hillary Clinton defeated to win her Senate seat in 2000 when Mayor Giuliani dropped out of the race after being diagnosed with prostate cancer. Carl Paladino was the outsider candidate, a pro-life social and fiscal conservative with Tea Party support. Paladino was down only six points to Democrat Andrew Cuomo a week after the New York primary, but ended up on the losing end of a 27-point drubbing. Despite the fact that New York is one of the bluest states in the nation, Paladino didn’t make his task of defeating Cuomo easy on himself. He first offended women by referring to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand as Charles Schumer’s “little girl.” Then he offended gays by saying that he doesn’t want children to be “brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality is an equally valid and successful option,” citing that “it isn’t.” He went further to say that Cuomo’s appearance at a gay pride parade was “not the example we should be showing our children.” He said all this, despite the fact that Paladino’s own nephew is gay. Insensitive? Yes. Stupid? For sure. A winning strategy? Hell no.

In the Delaware Primary, Christine O’Donnell defeated GOP sweetheart Mike Castle who had won 13 elections in a row dating back to 1980 for various offices including Governor and U.S. Representative, in a state where only 29% of registered voters are Republican. In September, Mike Castle led Democrat Chris Coons by 11 points, the same advantage Coons had over O’Donnell in the same Rasmussen poll. That didn’t stop Tea Party advocates like radio talk show host Mark Levin and conservative kingmaker Sarah Palin from pushing for an O’Donnell primary win by attacking Castle for being a moderate. Many pundits claimed she was not a viable candidate for U.S. Senate, and the fact that O’Donnell was on video claiming to have “dabbled” in witchcraft, and that she was involved in an anti-masturbation campaign in the mid-1990s, didn’t help to counter those claims. The Republicans in Delaware were convinced to support a conservative in a state where a moderate is the only type of Republican that can win.  The conservative lost to the liberal by almost 17 points.

Even with Republicans poised to take back control of the House, all eyes were on the U.S. Senate race in Nevada as voters in the Silver State were salivating over the opportunity to retire Harry Reid. When 2010 began Harry Reid’s approval rating in Nevada sat at a dismal 33%, months before the passage of the unpopular health care and financial reform bills. Republicans saw a 6-way race in the primary to determine the Senate Majority Leader’s opponent, including former Assemblywoman Sharron Angle, former Republican Party Chair Sue Lowden and perennial candidate Danny Tarkanian. Lowden was the early favorite, as she was seen as the candidate most likely to win over independent voters. Independents and Non-Partisans are a key voter bloc in Nevada where registered Democrats (588,970) outnumber Republicans (484,791) by more than 105,000, with 304,000 voters belonging to neither Party. Because Sharron Angle comes from the northern part of the state, and the other 5 candidates come from the South, she had a decisive advantage in the primary once the votes were split among her opponents. To put it in perspective, only 70,424 GOP voters backed Angle in the primary, compared with 175,674 who backed someone else. Does that help explain why Angle had such a hard time uniting her own party behind her? How can you expect a candidate to win over Independents, Non-Partisans, Libertarians and conservative Democrats when 71.3% of their own party feels they aren’t the best candidate? In addition to this glaring challenge, the Angle campaign had no shortage of pitfalls, many of which were self-imposed:

–          Fighting against Tonopah High School’s decision to wear black jerseys for a homecoming game in 1992, because black is the color of evil.

–          Stating she believed Social Security should be “phased out,” in favor of something “privatized,” then denying having ever said it.

–          Refusing to accept contributions from political action committees of corporations offering same-sex partner benefits to gay employees, and then accepting them anyway.

–          Ignoring Hispanic media, while dodging local reporters and unsuccessfully trying to ban one local TV station from the GOP Election Night party.

I could go on and on, but I think my point is clear. I am a conservative, and I would have supported just about anyone over Harry Reid, but no candidate can expect to earn widespread support across party lines with a track record like Angle’s. That’s exactly what happened. According to CNN exit polls, Angle lost among women, all minority groups, voters under 50, voters earning under $50,000/year and voters without college degrees. She only won Independents by 4 points, and she lost 17% of voters who self-identify as conservatives. None of this adds up to a fighting chance against Harry Reid and his union-fueled turnout machine. Bill Buckley was famous for saying it, Charles Krauthammer re-iterated it, and over the summer I tried to communicate it. In Delaware they ignored it, and in Nevada we didn’t think we needed it: Support the most conservative candidate who can win the general.

The Future

The Republican Party will cease to exist if we do not learn from these mistakes.

The story of the 2010 midterm elections should be one of GOP victory. Republicans gained over 60 seats in the House, made gains in the Senate, dominated Governors races, and elected the most unconventional Republicans in the history of our Party with wins by Brian Sandoval (NV), Marco Rubio (FL), Col. Allen West (FL), Tim Scott (SC), Susana Martinez (NM) and Nikki Haley (SC) for starters.

We must continue to grow our party so we can continue to compete against Democrats in every state. We must realize that different kinds of Republicans are needed to win in different parts of the country. We must better articulate conservative values, and welcome all of those who share most of them with us into our Party. We must continue to produce great candidates who appeal to a wide range of voters, including Independents and conservative Democrats. We cannot afford to be divisive, insensitive, or damage our Party’s image, and we can do that without compromising our values. These should be our goals, and anything that compromises our success should not be tolerated.

Now let’s get ready for 2012!