Some conservatives have claimed last Tuesday’s election results show the GOP is on track for a historic victory next year. The returns from states like Virginia, where Democrats lost control of the Senate and ebbed further into the minority in the House, were an ominous sign for President Obama and his party.
One observer labeled Virginia, “Obama’s defeat.”
While those types of proclamations are a tonic for many in the GOP, that optimism should be checked. In fact, the 2011 elections served as a political X-ray machine exposing weaknesses in the Republican Party previously unseen. Political organizations routinely win elections by connecting the strategic brains of experienced leaders with the brawn of its body of supporters, but that wasn’t the case for the GOP in 2011.
In reality, last week’s results showed the inability of the Republican Party’s brains to link up with its brawn. Before it’s too late, the GOP urgently needs to expand beyond its existing cadre of professionals, institute independent feedback, bring innovation to its campaign plans and reconnect with the conservative grassroots.
All over the country, the GOP actually fell short of expectations. Republican victories writ large failed to materialize in Ohio, a crucial presidential battleground, as well as in the Republican-led states of Maine and Mississippi. Obama for America highlighted the political disparities in a strategic memo to supporters last week, which went unanswered by Republicans.
Call it a classic brain versus brawn problem. The strategic approaches pursued by well-paid Republican consultants, a narrow base of donors and the slim-to-absent field operations failed to forge a connection between voter intensity, incumbent antipathy and the GOP’s electoral goals.
GOP strategists failed to engineer creative campaigns or to produce targeted messages convincing to Independents, many of who are eager to support Republicans, according to recent polls. But without a message offering a better alternative than the status quo, why vote GOP?
In Ohio, supporters of Gov. John Kasich (R) failed to organize sufficient support to push back against organized labor. Kasich supporters waited until August to start raising funds in support of Issue 2, the ballot question on whether to support a law that rolled back some collective bargaining rights for public employees. Ultimately, Kasich’s supporters collected $9 million to oppose union expenditures in excess of $30 million.
The result was a rollback of key union-busting legislation by an expansive labor partnership of teachers, police and firefighters drawing support from outside state lines. Ohio residents are left to ponder the budget and tax implications.
Republicans did prevail in rejecting Obama’s key health care insurance mandate, a measure far less interesting to union supporters. Count one win for the unions and a loss that won’t bother the president.
In Mississippi, known for its historical conservatism -- the gubernatorial candidates of both parties supported the “personhood” amendment defeated by voters -- a Republican was elected to follow another Republican governor, while legislative pickups were eked out with minimal votes. Count one win and too many squeakers in what should’ve been a wave year.
Moreover, in Maine, a Republican-controlled statewide leadership couldn’t stop voters from overturning their new legislation limiting same-day voter registration.
Previous GOP efforts have been more innovative and less incoherent. In 2010, then-Republican Governors Association Chairman Haley Barbour pioneered strategic funding operations to pick up 11 governorships. In that same election cycle, the Tea Party was itself an innovation. Tea Party primaries strengthened the conservative budget message and organized grassroots supporters, the very means by which GOP candidates won by large margins in House and state legislative races.
In 2008, the Democrats were innovative. The Chicago political machine provided the brain trust, defeating then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (N.Y.) in the Democratic primary, and then racking up general election victories up and down the ballot. The Obama 2008 campaign pioneered new social media techniques for organizing communities of voters, while union allies provided the brawn.
The GOP must take note. Facing a major political hurdle in 2012, it’s time to expand the Republican cabal and exorcise a ghost in the party machine.
Dr. Dora Kingsley is founder of Trenton West, a national policy and opposition research firm based in California and Washington, D.C. As an adjunct professor with the University of Southern California’s School of Policy, Planning and Development, Kingsley has taught graduate coursework for sixteen years and is a lifetime fellow of the congressionally chartered National Academy of Public Administration.