By Clarence Page
For many Republicans, Tuesday’s off-year elections marked the first big electoral test of two competing strategies for their party’s future: “outreach” versus “double-down.”
That’s another way of saying the elections marked a contest between two ways of thinking: the GOP’s pragmatic, business-minded establishment vs. its far-right and fiercely ideological tea party insurgency.
After Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s demographically driven defeat last year, establishment leaders like Jeb Bush and Haley Barbour called for more outreach efforts to grow the party’s base.
Hardcore conservatives in the Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz factions nixed that approach as a conspiracy by “RINOs” — Republicans in name only — to water down conservative principles.
Instead, the far right prefers to double down, nominate candidates that are even more conservative and knock on more doors to turn out more of the conservative base that largely stayed home in 2008 and 2012.
In Virginia that meant nominating Republican Ken Cuccinelli, the state’s attorney general who lost the race for governor to businessman and former Democratic Party chairman Terry McAuliffe by only 55,000 votes.
By hammering away at President Obama’s health care plan at the end of his campaign, Cuccinelli narrowed McAuliffe’s lead. But he lost mainly in the crucial swing districts of northern Virginia, hard-hit by the government shutdown in nearby Washington.
In a campaign of nasty attack ads by both sides, McAuliffe took advantage of Cuccinelli’s strident social conservatism on abortion and other issues, including legal action to block climate change research at the University of Virginia. Seeing his anti-science position as anti-economic growth, even some Republican businesspeople held fundraisers for McAuliffe.
Conclusion: Democrats have good reasons to be delighted by far-right opponents in swing states.
In Alabama, a primary congressional runoff drew national attention as a head-to-head challenge by the establishment-backed candidate, Bradley Byrne. He eliminated tea party-packed Dean Young in a crowded primary field to succeed Republican Jo Bonner, who isn’t running again.
The district is so conservative that outreach merely means sounding reasonable in one’s conservatism, as opposed to, for example, Young’s indulging the false rumors that Obama was born in Kenya.
A flurry of establishment GOP support for Byrne included major money on his behalf from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and big companies such AT&T and Home Depot.
Although it was hard to slip a playing card between the two candidates’ conservative anti-Washington views, Byrne criticized the government shutdown and debt ceiling fight as bad for the country. Young said it “was not the end of the world,” a view that does not sit well with the business folk — or many of the rest of us who care about jobs, either.
But when it comes to outreach and crossover appeal, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s re-election landslide grabs the most attention. The presidential hopeful took full advantage of that spotlight.
In a come-together message reminiscent of Obama’s national debut at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Christie offered Americans of good will something of which we have seen too little in our nation’s capital lately: good will.
“I know that tonight a dispirited America, angry with their dysfunctional government in Washington looks to New Jersey to say, ‘Is what I think’s happening really happening? Are people really coming together? Are we really working, African-Americans and Hispanics, suburbanites and city-dwellers, farmers and teachers, are we really all working together?’
Exit polls by Edison Research backed up his kumbaya message with a rainbow coalition of diverse supporters. He won 32 percent of registered New Jersey Democrats, 57 percent of women voters, 51 percent of Latinos, and 21 percent of African-Americans.
That’s an impressive percentage for black turnout since the civil rights era and an increase in every demographic group since his first election.
But will he play well nationally to the conservative GOP base? Many already are infuriated by his civil reception to President Obama in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
I think that question depends on how much Republicans want to win. Like left-wing Democrats who swung back to the center to nominate Bill Clinton in 1992 after losing three presidential elections in a row, Republicans may be weary enough after eight years of President Obama to reach out and talk to somebody besides themselves.
E-mail Clarence Page at firstname.lastname@example.org.