Last week HUMAN EVENTS "virtually" hit the road through key states to take the pulse of Republican state chairmen. In the most expedited campaign schedule in history candidates, campaign organizers and fundraising operations are spreading across the country. HUMAN EVENTS continued its conversation with party chairmen in key states like Missouri and Florida and across the heartland and West. We asked chairmen what they think of the rush to 2008 and what will be in store for candidates who come to their states.
Is there an established front-runner or declared losers yet? Not by a long shot say the chairmen. These chairmen like "dating" metaphors. Florida Chairman Jim Greer says we are still in the "getting to know the candidates" stage. Texas Chairman Tina Benkiser says Texans "learn not to kiss on the first date and need to be courted." Many Western and Midwestern states have not joined the stampede for an early primary date so the "pressure" to choose a candidate quickly is reduced. States like New Mexico and Washington with late primaries would just like a little attention. Chairman Luke Esser says Washington state is winnable for the GOP in November but candidates would be wise to show up for more than just a fundraiser or two if they want to capture the hearts of voters there. State chairmen in Missouri, Montana, Nebraska and Colorado agree that it remains just too early for most voters to decide on their favorite. New Mexico Republican Party Chairman Allen Weh says for working people whose "entertainment isn’t politics" the 2008 election has barely registered. Colorado’s new State Party Chairman Dick Wadhams sees more fundraising and organizational activity from the Romney and Giuliani camps but observes that party activists are "hanging back" to look over the field.
What lessons do the chairmen hope candidates have learned from 2006? While voters took out their wrath on D.C. Republicans because of concerns about management of the war and corruption, candidates for state office in several states did well running on mainstream conservative positions on jobs, tort reform and social issues. Wadhams says that lack of fiscal responsibility and ethical lapses "contributed massively to the party’s loses in 2006" and "reclaiming the fiscal responsibility mantle" is crucial to the party’s success. Candidates who focus on "fundamentals" will do well according to Weh. Pointing to great success in Missouri in securing both houses of the state legislature and the governorship, Doug Russell of Missouri agrees that in his state candidates win if they "stay true to conservative roots." In Texas "faith, family, freedom, lower taxes, limited government and living the American dream" still resonate according to Benkiser.
Are voters willing to vote for candidates who don’t match their notion of an ideal conservative? Chairmen spoke with a uniform voice: candidates should tell it like it is, speak from the heart and not try to please everyone. Karl Ohs says a majority of Montanans want "someone who agrees with them most of the time." Benkiser spoke for many when she said candidates should: "Tell who they really are, what they really believe and how they’ll govern according to their principles." In New Mexico someone who is a bit of a "maverick" and doesn’t tell everyone what they want to hear will fair well according to Weh. Mark Quandahl of Nebraska said simply: "Be honest. We might not agree with everything a candidate says on all the issues but we want to see the candidate say the same thing in Nebraska as he does in Iowa as he does in New Hampshire and New York and Florida." Wadhams is blunt that Colorado voters want a "winner" and will choose the candidate with the best combination of electability and basic conservative principles.
Which issues are highest on the list of concerns for their party members? The war on terror was mentioned by nearly every chairman we spoke to. Most interestingly many expressed the view that the Iraq war will face a significant turning point by the end of 2007, hopefully for the better, and may be less of an issue than it was in 2006. Quandahl says for a solid red state like Nebraska social issues cannot "be ignored." Texas, Montana and Missouri chairmen agree that social issues are key. However, many chairmen from western states said social issues, while they cannot be overlooked have been "overplayed" and that fiscal discipline, energy, immigration, use of natural resources and Second Amendment rights are equally if not more important. Esser identified fiscal issues and free trade as key in Washington but also cautioned that voters don’t just want a list of positions but "want to be inspired."
What about the so far undeclared candidate Newt Gingrich? If he were running for Secretary of Ideas he’d win in a landslide. "A wonderful addition" to a new cabinet says Weh. "A great mind," says Ohs. "Brilliant" is the most frequently used adjective. Quandahl praises Gingrich for his "stroke of genius" in creating the Contract for America which gave voters "direct measurable goals" to judge their elected representatives. Wadhams says with Gingrich’s "intellectual heft" he would "change the dynamics of the race" even if he might not win. As a candidate, however, nearly all chairmen concede he remains a lightning rod and bears the "divisive" label from his days as speaker. Ohs and other think it “would be difficult” for him to win the presidency.
Best advice for Republicans? Greer explained that Republicans become electable when they get the issues right: "By stepping up to take on the big challenges and working to solve everyday problems while still holding true to the conservative beliefs of smaller government and fiscal responsibility, our candidates are in line with the majority of America’s voters — in turn, making them very electable."