Ideology, Party Discipline and Campaign Organization
This is a long post. It took several hours to write. I hope you find it worth spending 5 minutes to read.
Anyone who scans these forums, even briefly, recognizes Virginia Republicans are engaged in an often painful examination of where we are, how we got here and, most importantly, how do we move forward. Most of the discussions have been useful but there still seems to be something missing. A great deal of discussion has focused on identifying a single cause (and corresponding silver bullet solution) for our declining fortunes in Virginia, particularly in NOVA. Attempts have been made to pin the blame on RINOs, ideologues, party elites, herd mentality by grassroots and sheer incompetence on the part of RPVA. I believe that none of the above are fully responsible for our current situation and all of the above share at least a portion of the blame. We can separate these issues into their component parts, it makes for easier examination; but must conduct a full 360 degree assessment of past mistake (and successes). Only then will we be able to craft a comprehensive plan to change direction.
Ideology -- This is unquestionably the most hot button issue in these forums. Most commentators advocate either compromising core believes to gain votes from moderates or taking an unyielding position in order to avoid losing conservatives. I think we need to reexamine these issue and recognize they can be broken into sub-issues that allow us opportunities to focus on areas where moderate voters may agree with us, seek compromise on non-core sub-issues and even do a little horse trading on some of them.
NOVA moderates who want a variety of government services, particularly enhanced transportation systems, do not necessarily want to pay $1.50 in taxes for $0.75 in services. Many of them also work for small nimble beltway bandits and instinctively understand that a smaller government focused on achieving excellence in providing critical services is more desirable than a large over bloated bureaucracy that tries to do everything. A strident anti government message that dismisses the need for services they value drives these voters toward the Democrats. A message that government cannot only live within its means but deliver a better quality of service in the process will bring them back.
Many voters in NOVA, and increasingly the rest of the state, are more libertarian than liberal or conservative. The want government to stay away from their finances, their gun cabinet and most particularly their family. This means they tend to shut out pro-life messages they perceive as purely anti-abortion intrusions into their personal decisions. But they are also often open to parental rights message that government officials in schools, social services agencies and the courts should not be allowed to insert themselves between parents and their daughters. This issue are was actually something of a success story for Virginia Republicans during the 80s and 90s when many pro-life candidates for State House and Senate races gained support from nominally pro-choice areas by using these sub-issues effectively. These moderate voters also tend to see gay rights issues, including gay marriage, as one of government intrusion into personal decisions. But many of them would be open to a trade-off whereby government recognizes their right to live and marry as they please but school systems are prohibited from advocating lifestyles of any type and government respects parental rights to determine values in their family.
My basic point regarding ideology is that it is more complex than left, right, center / black, white grey / surrender, stand-your-ground, compromise etc. We will never gain votes from hard core liberal ideologues and attempting to run to the left of Democrats is both demeaning and ineffective. But I believe there are actually far fewer of these voters than election returns indicate. Republicans can win NOVA with a basically conservative message if we focus on delivering the message correctly. We need to listen to all voters, determine what is most important to them, identify areas of agreement as well as disagreement, deliver compelling messages focused on areas of agreement, look for areas where we can horse trade without compromising truly core principals, respectfully but clearly articulate the areas where we cannot compromise and offer voters every possible opportunity to support us without compromising their principals.
Party Discipline – (Leaders) We name streets in Virginia after the type of party discipline and unity demonstrated by many of our leaders: “One Way” and “Dead End”. This has been a growing cancer since 1978 when grassroots conservatives not only held their noses to vote for a Senator not of their choosing; but, actively made phone calls, walked precincts and worked polls in one of the most impressive volunteer efforts the state had ever seen and delivered a narrow victory. That Senator returned the favor with lackluster support for RPVA fundraising efforts, tepid endorsements of most conservative candidates, refusal to endorse others even after they had won the nomination, outright opposition to the Republican candidate for Senate in 1994 and a decision to retire when it became clear that he was the only nominal Republican who could hold the seat against the very real possibility of Democrats gaining 60 votes in the Senate. Today he is acknowledged as one of our most honored party leaders.
He has set the example for others to follow. In 1993 when the RPVA funded a three part bumper sticker for the statewide ticked reading “Allen/Ferris/Gilmore” in red, white and blue, Republican party officials in some areas handed out smaller white stickers reading “Beyer” that could be put over the center portion. I remember arriving at a parking lot in Centerville for a percent canvassing effort and being so disgusted by their open opposition to one of our candidates that I got in my car and drove home. In 2001, many of these same so called party leaders openly supported Mark Warner against Mark Early, helping to give Warner a relatively narrow victory in a campaign where he outspent Early 2 to 1, as well as giving the Democrats the opening wedge they have used so effectively in the past 10 years. We have had State Senators give radio interviews in which they proudly stated they were “Republican In Name Only”. More recently we have seen the State Chairman of RPVA encourage, or at least not stop, robo-calls aimed at our candidate for governor. Meanwhile, from last June to April 4th, members of the SCC were spending more time, money and political capital removing the chairman than supporting Republican candidates.
Our party leaders have evolved from emulating Benedict Arnold to impersonating the Three Stooges. This cannot be allowed to continue. Virginia Republicans enjoyed a steady growth in volunteers, fundraising and grassroots activism from the mid 70s through the late 90s. Since then we have had a slow steady erosion of all three. Prince William County, the second largest in the state, had less than 200 people attend the 2009 county convention. There are no leaders without followers and very few people will follow a leader who is disloyal or incompetent.
We ask a great deal of our grassroots supporters, including voting and working for candidates they may have opposed during the nomination process. We should demand no less of our leaders. Candidates for statewide office should be required to commit to raising $500,000 for the RPVA and $500,000 each for other statewide candidates if they are elected. They should commit to raising lower amounts for Congressional, State legislative local candidates and local party organizations. Similar targets should be established for candidates for other offices. All elected Republican office holders should commit to endorsing the Party’s candidates within 3 days of the convention or primary. Failure to meet fundraising or endorsement commitments should result in a proportional loss of support from the party for the individual’s reelection.
I am about the furthest one can get from a doctrinaire ideologue, often agree with moderates on policy issues and have voted for several moderates in primary elections; but few things make my blood boil more than elected party leaders deliberately undermining the campaigns of Republican nominees or withholding support for party fundraising. If they cannot or will not support the Party, they should not accept its nomination.
Party Discipline – (Followers) Grassroots activists can, should, MUST make their voices heard. They must also recognize they are not the only constituency in the political environment. Donors, who may or may not overlap with activists, have a right to be heard as well. But voters trump all else. Party rules facilitate the ability of small groups of activists to dominate sparsely attended county or state conventions, nominate marginal candidates, pass dogmatic resolutions and issue “interesting” public statements in the Party’s name. It may feel good for a day or even a week but elected officials are in office for 2, 4 or 6 years and nominating a fringe candidate or handing the opposition a resolution/statement that can be used as a club against us is just plain stupid. The sting of the voters’ rejection at the polling place will remain long after the triumph of the resolution in the high school auditorium has faded from memory.
Grassroots activists in Virginia are some of the most sophisticated in the nation, particularly in NOVA. Most of them have been active at some level for decades. Many of them work or have worked for elected officials or government agencies. More than a few of them have held elected office. They read newspapers and public policy journals, watch television talk shows, listen to talk radio and educate themselves about both issues and public opinion. They know very well how most of their neighbors will react to certain candidates, resolutions or statements. Many of them simply don’t care. Too many of our grassroots are more interested in maintaining a dogmatic ideological purity than in advancing a public policy agenda.
Equally important, elected officials cannot, should not, and in most cases will not allow themselves to be dominated by groups that represent a small fraction of 1 percent of voters. The same rules that allow activists to dominate conventions also allow incumbents to bypass them and seek reelection through primaries.
Grassroots activists in Virginia have more ability to determine the Party’s nominees and policy platform than in almost any other state. To my knowledge, only Utah comes as close to empowering the grassroots as Virginia. But with power comes responsibility. The continual efforts to reshape the party as the private play toy of small groups of activists has decimated party organizations in NOVA, driven away many potential voters, donors and volunteers, and culminated in a state leadership fight that may yet cost us the governor’s race.
If these small groups of activists cannot or will not control their desire to “make a statement” regardless of the cost to the party’s ability to win elections and shape public policy, than the SCC should dilute their power by adopting party rules that broaden the nominating base and limit the role of conventions. At the very least, if a convention is called for the purpose of nominating a candidate to local office and does not receive applications for certification as a delegate from at least 5 percent of the Republican vote in the last election, the convention should be cancelled and a primary held in its place.
Campaign Organization – Close examination of statewide campaigns since 2001 indicate Republicans could have and should have survived ideological splits, disloyal leaders and runaway activists while continuing to win a string of state wide victories. All of these factors hurt but none were fatal, individually or collectively. No, we defeated ourselves with some of the worst campaigns in history. Larry Sabato has made a fairly good living chronicling some of these errors. They could serve as textbook examples of how not to run for statewide office.
Mark Early seemed to believe that he would win ROVA as a conservative and NOVA as a native son so he could get by with less than impressive fundraising and wait until after Labor Day to get serious about campaigning. By the time this campaign got started, Mark Warner had already raised twice as much money, albeit mostly from himself, recruited and trained the most extensive field staff the state had seen upto then, and developed a comprehensive list of over 3 million voters complete with contact information and policy preferences. Nevertheless, Warner only won by about 4 percent. If we had actually fought this fight instead of assuming we had it won, Mark would only be remembered as the “other” Warner.
Jerry Kilgore had one of the best and most comprehensive transportation funding proposals ever put forward by a Virginia candidate. You could find it about 6 levels down on his website and there was a passing reference to it in one of his brochures. When I asked his NOVA field rep when or if they would hand out copies of the transportation plan at slug lots, she asked “what is a slug lot?” She had however already lined up her next job as a field rep for Jim Nussle’s campaign for governor of Iowa. He also lost. Meanwhile, the Kilgore campaign poured limited resources into an easily dismissed commercial about the death penalty. The same field rep told me this was because over 80 percent of voters in Va. supported the death penalty. It’s called preaching to the choir. In Virginia the ACLU supports the death penalty. No one ever believed a Virginia governor would try to repeal it, Kaine promised to apply it, end of debate.
George Allen truly was coasting to reelection. So his campaign decided to conduct a series of grueling bus trips around the state in August where he would get little sleep, be constantly moving, give the same basic speech till saying anything different to spice it up seemed attractive and just to make it interesting, the staff would feed him some of the jokes they told about the “monitors” the Democrats were sending to his events. Instead of responding to the inevitable gaffe with a quick apology and the sacrifice of the staffer who provided the wrong name, the campaign decided to conduct a case study in how to make a bad situation worse.
By 2008, the damage had been done. Nothing Gilmore, or anyone else, could have done would have changed the outcome. He and his campaign went through the motions and made fewer mistakes than his predecessors but it was obvious their hearts weren’t in it.
Two common threads run through all these races. Excessive reliance on paid staff who were unfamiliar with the state and an attempt to apply a cookie cutter campaign plan that had worked previously in some other place and time. Mark Early more or less tried to repeat Gilmore’s successful gubernatorial race based on following a popular incumbent and running against a weak self funding opponent with next to no base outside NOVA. That plan worked well in 97 against Don Beyer. It failed miserably in 2001 against Mark Warner. Kilgore tried to repeat George Allen’s successful race using the death penalty instead of parole reform and substituting Tim Kaine for Mary Sue Terry. Again, worked well in 93 and failed in 2005. Allen was trying to recreate his own successful statewide wins with the help of the campaign manager who had defeated Tom Daschle in South Dakota. There is no question; Tom Thune beat Daschle with a combination of an early campaign start, grueling bus tours across South Dakota, hard attacks and shoot from the hip tactics. All of which were particularly ill suited to an incumbent sitting on a double digit lead against an opponent with almost no name recognition.
The instructor at the College Republican Field-rep School I attended in 1977 told us there are no cookie cutter campaigns. Each race is a unique event in time, location and personalities. Every campaign must be approached as if it were the first ever to be conducted. The planning must be meticulous and based on a comprehensive analysis of the state or district which must be conducted anew for each and every race. The manager must learn and know every item of quantitative or qualitative information available regarding the district and the field staff must become as familiar with their assigned areas as they are with their home towns. This is the bare minimum required to even have a chance of winning. That instructor was Karl Rove. His weekend seminar still stands as the best I’ve ever attended.
We need to insist our candidates apply these lessons in Virginia. No funding without a detailed campaign plan. Staff must commit to learning their assigned regions quickly and demonstrate they have done so early in the campaign. Most importantly, each candidate must clearly articulate who will vote for them and why with minimal dependence on voting against the opponent or force of habit.