Five Election Day Lessons for the GOP

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Despite the best efforts of the White House and much of the media to portray this week’s elections as a meaningless barometer of the public’s mood toward the Obama administration, the results were clear. The voters were communicating buyers’ remorse. One year after reaching its zenith, the Democratic Party is now grappling with what could be the beginning of the end of the Obama era.

In Virginia, former Attorney General Bob McDonnell, a solid pro-family, pro-life conservative, won a landslide victory, as did down-ticket conservative candidates. Repeated Obama visits to his own backyard did nothing to help Democrat Creigh Deeds. The GOP landslide came only a year after Barack Obama became the first Democrat since 1964 to carry Virginia in a presidential contest.

Democrats are suggesting that low voter turnout is to blame. But low turnout is a sign of demoralization and disappointment among the base. Many young people who voted overwhelmingly for Obama have since graduated college and are finding jobs scarce. High unemployment rates prove that no one can find those elusive “saved or created” jobs outside of an Obama administration news release.

Incumbent Democratic Governor Jon Corzine’s loss to Republican Chris Christie in New Jersey was even more of an indictment of the Obama administration. New Jersey is a liberal state that Obama won last year by 15 points and where he staked his reputation for energizing voters. Just consider this pre-election headline from the Associated Press: “Obama Says New Jersey Governor Is Key To His Own Agenda.”

While encouraging, these GOP victories and deepening voter dissatisfaction with the Democrats’ agenda don’t mean that anything is guaranteed for the GOP. Here are five lessons Republicans should learn from Tuesday’s elections.

1) Reaganism still wins — Thirty years after Reagan’s ascendance, nobody has improved on his winning formula. Candidates can win almost anywhere by providing enough to satisfy each of the three legs of the Republican stool–foreign policy conservatives, values conservatives and economic conservatives.

Of course a Republican in Cambridge will not always look like a Republican in Nashville.  Bob McDonnell and Chris Christie won by emphasizing the economy, taxes and transportation, issues at the forefront of the minds of voters in their states and across America. But no one doubted that they were also pro-life and pro-family. We need to respect the various interests that bring us together, recognizing that each candidate’s top issue may not be our own.

2) Quit worrying about the megaphones — There is no need for Republican leaders to be nervous about the influence of conservative media leaders like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. Their voices are assets, not liabilities.  Any voter who would reject the GOP because of what a talk show host says is a voter the GOP is not going to win over anyway.

My sense is that too many Republican insiders are afraid of being labeled extremists for aligning with the conservative grass roots or for defending core conservative values. But they shouldn’t be afraid. In Virginia, Democrat Creigh Deeds dredged up McDonnell’s old college thesis, which exposed the Republican as — gasp! — a cultural conservative. Deeds’ antics won over few voters and contributed to his demise.  Only on MSNBC and university campuses and in a few reader-losing newsrooms do timeless values equal backward thinking.

Given its appointees and policies, the Obama administration and the leftwing base of the Democratic Party are the extremists. The GOP should say so.  

3) Be Bold — All politicians use polling to ascertain the public’s mood, but polls should not determine the GOP’s message. I was happy to see Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachman call for Americans to pour into D.C. this week to rally against Obamacare. But I couldn’t help but wonder why Republican Party leaders haven’t thought of more ways to engage Americans directly. Voting against the Democrats is not enough to sustain the party. People need reasons to vote for Republican alternatives.

4) Don’t underestimate the loss of credibility — The GOP should feel emboldened but get to work. Conservatives are on the rise everywhere and make up the overwhelming majority of Republicans — 72 percent in a recent Gallup poll.

The problem is, as pollster Scott Rasmussen recently noted, only 56 percent of conservative voters are Republicans, so “there are more conservatives than Democrats in America, and there are more Democrats than Republicans.”  GOP leaders have a lot of work to do to win back disaffected conservatives, including independents. The party has made a good start to win that trust back this year, but they have a lot more work to do.

5) Don’t ignore values issues — The GOP would be on easy street if it could win for its candidates the same share of voters who time and time again reject same-sex marriage. Proposition 8, California’s marriage amendment, passed last November with 52 percent support. John McCain won just 31 percent of California voters on the same day.  Maine’s marriage amendment passed on Tuesday with 53 percent of the vote, which was 10 points more than McCain got in Maine last year.  On abortion and life issues, a majority of Americans now call themselves pro life, marking a dramatic shift against abortion over the last year.  The Republican should be proud of its social conservatism, not hide from it.

Liberal talking heads are wrong when they claim that conservatives like me do not want the GOP to be a big tent or that we want some kind of intra-party war. Nothing could be further from the truth. The GOP is a party of principles and ideas, and a healthy party talks about how best to implement those ideas. Ideas such as smaller government, strong national defense, and respect for all people at all stages of life are the bedrock of a winning party. Those values won on Tuesday, and with them so did the GOP.