Campaign 2010, Politics

Desperate Democrats Replay the GOP’s Failed 2006 Strategy

The New York Times has an article on how the Democrats are planning to attack the Tea Party this fall. It’s a classic campaign of FUD—Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. The Democrats want to try to paint the Tea Partiers as a bunch of extremists nutjobs in the hopes that the voters associate Republicans with the Tea Party.

The problem with that strategy is that it doesn’t work. Barrage after barrage of ads against Sharron Angle in Nevada have only managed to put the race within the margin of error. And Angle is an extremely unpolished candidate who’s made several unforced errors early in her campaign. In Kentucky, the Democrats tried to attack Rand Paul along similar lines—and he is safely ahead. It’s not as though the Democrats are trying a new strategy—they’ve been playing the “extremist” card for this whole cycle. And where has it gotten them?

Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) looking unhappy

Despite painting Sharron Angle as an extremist, Harry Reid still is within the margin of error.

There’s an underlying reason why this strategy has and will fail: this is a referendum election. Some elections are referendums on the ruling party, others are status quo elections. In a referendum election, the electorate displays their disgust with the ruling party and is in a “throw the bums out” mood. In a status quo election, voters are happy and don’t want change from the status quo. Different strategies are effective for each.

The last referendum election we had was 2006, when the American people signaled their disgust with the state of the Republican Party. And what was the GOP strategy in 2006? Going on the attack and painting Democrats as extreme. Read this with the above NYT article and see how similar they are: it’s almost eerie.

Both the 2006-era GOP and the 2010 Democrats are making the same mistake: playing a strategy for a status quo election in a referendum election. Right now, voters are angry at the state of the country and angry at the Democratic Party. That’s showing in nearly every poll. So why are the Democrats going on the attack? Do they think that they can channel that anger towards the Republicans? Because that strategy never works. In a status quo election, you can use fear of change to get the electorate to reject the opposition’s message. But this does not work in a referendum election—voters who are angry at you are not going to be swayed by fear of the other side.

Referendum elections are like firestorms—one you’re in one, the only strategy that will save you is not to have played with matches in the first place. The Democrats are copying the failed strategy of the GOP in 2006—and for the same reasons. They don’t have a popular record to run on, so they’re hoping that they can scare voters away from giving them an electoral drubbing. But Americans may not particularly care for the Tea Party, but they really hate the state of the country. And the electorate’s disgust with the Democrats is trumping their concerns about the Tea Party. Because the Tea Party has thus far avoided wading into social issues and has kept their message targeted on fiscal restraint, the Democrats’ fear campaign just isn’t gaining traction.

That isn’t to say it will never work. There are races where such a strategy can have some effect. Harry Reid’s battle against Sharron Angle is one such race. Certainly Christine O’Donnell’s record of nutty views and numerous gaffes will ensure that she has roughly zero chance of taking Joe Biden’s old Senate seat. There may be a few House races here and there where that comes into play—but not enough to blunt GOP momentum.

The Democrats are showing desperation with this strategy, just as the GOP did in 2006. The fact that the Democrats are going after the Tea Party is not a brilliant electoral calculation, it’s a sign that they’re out of ideas. There’s nothing new about that strategy, and the Democrats have been trying it for nearly a year now. When you start seeing campaigns praying that opposition research and negative ads will work, it’s a sign of a campaign that’s scrambling to stop the bleeding. And that is exactly what the Democratic Party is trying to do right now. Perhaps they should ask the Republicans how well that strategy worked out for them four years ago.

Campaign 2010, Politics

Christine O’Donnell’s Pyrrhic Victory

So, you managed to get Christine O’Donnell the Republican nomination. Which means that the DE Senate seat she’s running for will go to the Democrats.

If you believe that we need to end the disastrous policies of the Obama Administration, reduce spending, and stop government overreach, then the best way of doing that is to see the Democratic majority in Congress go away.

And that means being strategic about selecting candidates.

I’m sorry, but with due respect to Ms. O’Donnell, she doesn’t have a shot in hell of winning. Her negatives are through the roof, she has no relevant experience, and other than saying the right things to conservatives, she’s got little going for her. Her record is, to be blunt, atrocious. Her record on her own finances should be sufficient to disqualify her—the Democratic attack ads practically write themselves. She will lose to Chris Coons, and she will lose by double digits. One can come up with all sorts of scenarios in which that doesn’t happen, but none of them are remotely likely.

The Tea Party, Sarah Palin, and Sen. Jim DeMint have pissed away a very winnable Senate seat. That means that the chances of GOP takeover of the Senate have gone from a relative longshot to roughly nil.

Yes, it’s fine to prefer the more conservative of two candidates. But that must be balanced with the understanding that if the more conservative candidate has no shot at actually winning, the effect of voting for that candidate is the same as voting for the Democrat.

In short, by voting for Christine O’Donnell, the conservative, the Tea Party has voter for Chris Coons, the radical left-wing liberal.

So far, this strategy has turned two sure-fire GOP pickups into two likely GOP losses. We could have picked off Harry Reid this year, but now the Nevada Senate race is a toss-up at best. We could have picked up a seat in Delaware, but that’s not going to happen.

Politics isn’t about being ideologically pure, it’s about being ideologically pragmatic. You don’t win a game of football by trying to throw Hail Mary passes every play, you win by moving the ball. Mike Castle may have been a squish, but he would have helped us move the ball in a more conservative direction. And when we had built up enough strength, found an acceptable conservative candidate, then it would have been a smart time to replace Castle.

The Tea Parties need to learn from the netroots, as painful as it is to write that. In 2006 and 2008, the netroots endorsed a whole slew of right-wing Democrats. Was Jon Tester a committed left-wing liberal? No. But he could, and did, win in a conservative state. Same with Jim Webb in Virginia—and many issues he could be considered a DINO. But the netroots supported him. When the netroots went for ideological purity above all (see Ned Lamont versus Joe Lieberman), they lost.

In fact, see Scott Brown in Massachusetts. Sen. Brown is conservative on many issues, but is not a perfect conservative. But the Tea Party still supported him, because he was the best alternative. Sen. Brown is as conservative a candidate as can win in Massachusetts, and had the Tea Party ousted him with some fire-breathing conservative stalwart, we’d be talking about Sen. Martha Coakley right now.

The goal should be to elect as conservative a candidate as possible that can still win. Christine O’Donnell may be conservative, but she simply cannot win the Delaware Senate race. Instead of moving the Senate in a more conservative direction, the Tea Parties have torpedoed the chances of a GOP takeover of the Senate.

No doubt some principled conservatives are celebrating what they see as a victory tonight. But for principled conservatism, it’s a Pyrrhic victory.

Addendum: At the same time, let no one think I’m a fan of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC). So far this cycle they have managed to back several losers, including turncoats Arlen Specter and Charlie Crist. The goal is to elect the most conservative candidate likely to win. And sometimes a conservative challenger like Pat Toomey or Marco Rubio can win. The NRSC is the flip-side of the Tea Parties in this regard, and neither side can truly claim superiority over the other. It isn’t just about electability, and it isn’t just about ideology. It’s about selecting the candidate with the right mix of both for the race. Neither side really seems to understand this principle.

Update: Castle won’t endorse O’Donnell. Mike Castle’s political career is likely over—he’s 70 years old. He can choose to go out with grace and dignity, or end a long career on a sour note. It is sad to see him choose the latter. Yes, Ms. O’Donnell is a terrible candidate, but she is the candidate that the voters chose. Rep. Castle should show respect to that choice and do what he can to help O’Donnell win, even if that outcome is unlikely.