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The suburban road for reviving local Republicans

The model for failure-based politics Credit: National Archives and Records Administration

It seems like this is the third time I have written this article: What happened to Republicans and where do they go from here? I wrote a similar piece for The Seattle Times after becoming state Party chair in 2001, and once again, here, after the debacle of 2006. Then as, now, the key lies with voters I call secular suburban moderates.

It is clear by now that Republicans have lost their grip on the suburbs. According to exit polls, Obama won the suburban vote 50-48 percent, and his strength in the suburbs helped him capture previously “red” states like Virginia, Ohio, and North Carolina. After carrying every suburban Puget Sound legislative district in 2004, this year Dino Rossi lost Pierce and Snohomish counties, and slipped by 4 percent in King County. The huge Democratic majorities in the state House and Senate are due to the loss of seats in the suburbs in recent years.

What has happened in the suburbs is realignment, not just a short term trend. If it is not reversed Republicans have no hope of governing, either nationally or in Washington state. The first step is to understand that this realignment manifests itself geographically, but it is actually cultural.

Politics used to be about economics. Very broadly speaking, management was Republican, labor was Democratic. People with more education tended to vote Republican, while people with less voted for Democrats. All of that has changed. Today the number one predictor for political behavior is how often you go to church. Values have replaced economics.

Consider this exit poll data from the recent election:

  • Nationally, 74 percent of white, self-described evangelical/born-again Christians (26 percent of the population) supported John McCain, while 62 percent of the rest of America supported Barack Obama. Here, 71 percent of the white evangelical/born-Christians (24 percent of Washington State) voted for Dino Rossi; while 62 percent of everyone else voted for Chris Gregoire.
  • McCain won handily among those who say they go to church weekly, while Obama won just as handily among those who say they attend occasionally or never.
  • 60 percent of self-described moderates supported Obama and Gregoire.
  • Nationally, McCain won narrowly among white college graduates, but here, 58 percent of white college graduates voted for Gregoire.
  • Voters making over $100,000 a year split nearly 50/50 between McCain and Obama, and between Rossi and Gregoire.

White, moderate, college educated, upper middle class, secular — this describes suburban voters. Republicans need to compete for every vote, but a conservative, center-right party is always going to struggle to win among minorities and city dwellers. If Republicans can’t add college educated white suburbanites back to their coalition of rural voters and evangelicals then they can’t win, period. If the values divide hardens, Republican math just doesn’t add up.

Conventional wisdom holds that Republican stands on social issues, such as abortion and stem cell research, have caused this realignment. Clearly, being pro-life is not a popular position among secular suburban moderates, but that doesn’t explain the collapses of 2006 and 2008. Republicans have generally been perceived as “conservative” and pro-life for a long time, yet were still able to win in the suburbs. In the past, secular suburban moderates were willing to support Republicans even if they were uncomfortable with the Party’s social issue wing. What happened? The game changer has been competence, not ideology.

Three great calamities defined President Bush’s second term and took Republicans down: the Iraq insurgency, the response to Hurricane Katrina, and the financial collapse. Add in congressional and administration Republican scandals and you have a party that simply appeared incompetent. To voters not motivated by values and ideology — secular, college educated moderates — this is a fatal blow. These voters approach elections like a job interview, rather than as a clash of ideas. What matters is competence, results, solving problems. Suburbanites didn’t see that from the Bush administration and the Republican Congress, and they took it out on Republican candidates up and down the ballot in what Newt Gingrich argues persuasively was a “performance election, not an ideological election.”

So, how do Republicans come back? Leaders at both the local and national level need to focus on this problem and keep three things in mind:

Add, don’t subtract. After a loss, the natural tension between “moderates” and “conservatives” becomes more intense. Both will call for the other to be driven from the Party. Both are wrong. Taking the Republican Party sharply left or right would be suicide. Republicans must maintain their base among conservative values voters — white evangelical/born-again Christians. This is a huge bloc of voters, roughly a quarter of the population. The GOP should not, and will not, abandon these voters or the issues they care passionately about. Instead, Republican leaders need to remember that American politics is about assembling and holding together coalitions. Republicans need to secure their conservative base, while winning back secular suburban moderates who will support Republicans on non-values based issues. And how do you do that?

Offer attractive candidates. Remember, our target voters approach elections like a job interview. Personal qualities matter and too often Democratic candidate are simply more impressive and articulate than those offered by the GOP. Saturday Night Live is never going to do a skit implying Barack Obama isn’t intelligent. To win back well educated, relatively affluent voters you need to first assure them that you are up to the job. Republicans need to seek out better, more articulate candidates at every level.

Present realistic, workable solutions. Democrats control everything, so Republicans in Congress and in the Legislature are going to be voting no a lot the next few years. That’s fine, but they can’t just vote no; they must offer solutions that make sense to voters looking for competence. Republicans can’t just say they are against higher taxes and big government; they must explain how their positions will specifically solve problems faced by suburban voters. They need to present clear alternatives on issues like education, transportation, health care, energy, and the environment. Most importantly, they need to explain why they have a better idea when it comes to growing the economy and creating jobs. Republicans should support low taxes and pro-growth policies, but then they need to complete their sentence. They need to explain to suburban voters how these policies will help their families by letting them keep more of what they earn, and by helping the private sector create new jobs.

Ironically, for Republicans at the local level this means largely staying the course, because Washington State Republicans have generally been doing things right in recent elections. (No, I’m not kidding.) Republicans have nominated candidates for major statewide office who could appeal to suburbanites: George Nethercutt, Mike McGavick, Dino Rossi, and Rob McKenna. All possess impressive resumes and the ability to articulate a suburban-friendly message. Likewise, Olympia Republicans did a better job this election cycle of recruiting good candidates for suburban seats, and Republicans actually gained a seat in each chamber. Dino Rossi did offer specific proposals on transportation, education, and health care. And, although they have been largely ignored, Republicans in Olympia have consistently tried to present policy “contracts” and “agendas” as alternatives to policies offered by the Democrats.

Unfortunately, the impressions created by President Bush and the national Party largely drowned out any message generated here in Washington state. No matter how much Mike McGavick talked about changing the tone in Washington, D.C., or how often Dino Rossi looked into the camera and talked about “solving problems…for a change,” to too many suburban voters they were just members of George W. Bush’s party.

Obviously, that era is over, which offers hope. Barack Obama, not George W. Bush, will now set the tone for politics in America. Democrats in Olympia and Washington, D.C. may overreach, or events may work against them. The President’s party routinely loses seats in mid-term elections. These factors may, on their own, help bring Republicans back.

But the GOP can’t count on the Democrats to fail; they need do the spade work necessary to regain what has been lost. Good candidates are crucial If Attorney General Rob McKenna chooses to run for Governor he will be formidable, but first a strong candidate for Patty Murray’s seat in the U.S. Senate is needed to lead the ticket in 2010. Republican leaders in Olympia need to persuade their good suburban candidates who lost in 2008, such as Steve Litzow in the 41st district, to try again. They need to intensify their efforts to offer voters specific, common sense policy alternatives. Most importantly, however, Washington state Republicans need to cross their fingers and hope Republicans in Washington, D.C. get their suburban act together. All politics may be local, but national trends and impressions are tough to overcome, as the last election clearly demonstrated.

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