Endangered Yankee Republicans

The New York Times on how to save the New Jersey GOP.

That story could have been written about any of the states north of New Jersey as well. After this month’s elections, New England was left with precisely one GOP member among its 22 House seats — Connecticut’s Chris Shays. How did the Northeast turn almost entirely blue? It’s obviously not an overnight phenomenon. Indeed, the genesis probably lies GOP’s Southern strategy of 40 years ago. As the party became more intent on capturing Southern votes, some retreat in the old Northeast was probably inevitable. But a virtual shutout? The Democrats at least still hold some seats in the interior South and predominantly African American districts.

The Times article shows the way for the GOP to regain some footing in the North: run strong on fiscal responsibility and low taxes, and speak softly on social issues. Most importantly, be positive and cast a vision for the future. Former governor Tom Kean, for example, married “pro-growth” supply-side economics with social progressivism to win two terms in the NJ statehouse in the 1980s. In his autobiography, Kean wrote that the best way to campaign when working with a deficit (such as in NJ where registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans 2-1), was to run upbeat and steal votes from your opponent’s base wherever you could, because one vote from his base is worth two from your own. This is the very antithesis of Karl Rove campaigning. Roveian thought says run negative and hard on social issues to fire up your base and get them to the polls, and screw the middle, because they either don’t exist in large numbers or don’t vote. All that matters is get to 50 plus one. This works fine when your positions on social issues are in the majority, and when the people want government intervention on such matters, but it seems obvious now that the Rove strategy only guarantees victory in the South. The Northeast and West Coast are solid blue, while the Midwest and Mountain states are purple and trending blue. Might the negativity and government intervention in social issues have something to do with it? You think the social liberals in the Northeast and West Coast, the plainspoken Midwesterners, and the libertarian Mountain staters might be turned off by government intervention in social affairs, even if they are amenable to your low-tax and fiscal discipline message? (The Times rightly excoriates Kean’s son, Tom Kean Jr., for running a Roveian negative campaign in this year’s NJ Senate battle rather than following in the footsteps of his mild-mannered patrician father).

So how do we save the endangered Yankee Republican? I had some ideas in the conclusion of my twopart review of Tom Kean’s autobiography, The Politics of Inclusion:

Conservatism needs to recapture the ideas of growth, openness, charitability, and optimism if it wants to continue to thrive in the 21st century. Crisis politics and wedge issue manipulation have short shelf lives. Show me Republican candidates with a pro-growth agenda, who support tax cuts and spending limits. Show me Republican candidates who are committed to broadening the base by spreading the message to not traditionally Republican groups, and who will not scapegoat minorities, immigrants, or those whose acts some consider sinful for this nation’s problems. Show me Republicans who are happy warriors and not filled with venom. Show me Republicans who will patriotically defend America and its traditional institutions and values, but will not demonize those who disagree. Show me Republicans who are bullish on America’s future, who think the nation’s best days are ahead rather than behind it. Then can I say with pride: “Republicanism and You: Still Perfect Together.”

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