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Squeezing the
Middle

What Republicans should learn from 2006
Democratic success

By Andrew Peters

One year after Barack Obama’s historic election, people are writing off his party’s chances in the 2010 midterm elections. Polling and enthusiasm seem to be favoring the Republican Party, while the Democratic Party seems hopelessly deadlocked. But an intra-party struggle between moderates and conservatives within the Republican Party threatens its chances for electoral success next November. The fight for the heart and soul of the party is being fought on blogs like Redstate.com, a leader of the conservative right. In December, Redstate’s Managing Editor Erick Erickson addressed this struggle and suggested conservatives need to stand up for their principals against the moderate establishment of the party in a post titled “The Very Necessary Republican Civil War.” He wrote, “Conservatives have a real opportunity to fight back. From Florida to California to Pennsylvania and more, if conservatives win the primaries the Republican Establishment will be marginalized and totally unable to take credit for the victories. In what will be a good year for Republicans next year, those conservatives will most likely win the general election too. So yes, there is a very necessary brewing Republican civil war.” If the conservative base thinks this is a strategy for electoral success, they have not learned the lessons from the successful Democratic handbook of 2006.

In the 2006 congressional elections, the Democratic base did not demand ideological purity from its candidates. Dailykos.com founder Markos Moulitsas, Erick Erickson’s counterpart on the left, wrote that in 2006, “…Our mantra was ‘more Democrats.’ At the time, it didn't matter much who we helped elect, so long as we replaced an inevitably regressive Republican with a Democrat, even if that Democrat would be just marginally better.” The Democratic base accepted political reality: to win a majority in the house of representatives, you have to win swing districts, which requires moderate candidates. Since swing district voters are usually evenly distributed between the two parties, the difference is made by independent voters. According to exit polls in 2008, the Democratic Party won the independent vote by a 51 to 43 percent margin.3 In 2006, when the Democratis Party picked up thirty seats in the House, they won the independent vote by a staggering 57%-39% margin.

The importance of winning the independent vote in swing districts is even more apparent after a close study of the districts that flipped from Republican to Democrat in 2006. One important way of measuring the political lean of a district is the Cook Partisan Vote Index (PVI). It is a measurement of how strongly a congressional district or state leans toward one political party compared to the nation as a whole. A PVI of Democrat +3 means the district leans 3 points more Democratic than the national average. After each presidential election, the PVI is adjusted to the new national average. In 2006, when the Democrats picked up thirty seats from Republicans, only nine of those districts had PVIs favoring Democrats, while 20 had PVIs favoring Republicans, and one was even. More surprising, 10 of the 30 districts had PVIs favoring Republicans by 5 or more points. The average PVI of the 30 congressional districts was R+2.06. To win these seats, the Democrats ran moderate candidates that appealed to independent voters who had been turned off by the policies of George W. Bush but were by no means strong Democrats.

Over the course of 2009, the Democrats have seen both positive and negative effects of winning a majority by becoming a “big tent party.” The healthcare bill passed the House of Representatives in November by a slim 220-215 vote despite a 257-178 majority. Of the 39 Democrats who voted against the bill, 19 were elected in 2006 or 2008. That means that almost half of the most conservative Democrats in the House were part of the class that gave the party a majority. Many of these Congressmen were beneficiaries of money raised by the Democratic netroots during their elections. In 2006 alone, the joint fundraising effort by the left wing blogs dailykos.com, swingstateproject.com, and Mydd.com raised 1.54 million dollars for 18 candidates in swing districts. These candidates included moderates such as Jon Tester, Jim Webb, and Ciro Rodriguez.

Republicans are refusing to learn the lesson of attracting moderate voters. This caused them to lose a seat in the House of Representatives just days before the healthcare vote when a special election was held in New York District 23 to replace Republican John McHugh. The Democrats nominated attorney Bill Owens, a moderate with no electoral experience. Republicans nominated state representative Dede Scozzafava, a moderate Republican who seemed to fit the district’s R+1 tilt. But conservative groups from around the country supported the insurgent campaign of Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman. Many of these groups contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to his campaign, most notably the Club for Growth which spent over $120,000 according to FEC filings. Sarah Palin, Dick Armey, and Tim Pawlenty all came to the district to campaign on Hoffman’s behalf. Because of this, on the weekend before the election, Scozzafava dropped out and endorsed Democrat Bill Owens. Owens went on to win 49 to 46 percent in a district that had not elected a Democratic congressman since the Civil War.

Rather than learn from their mistakes, conservatives were defiant in defeat. The morning after the election, Erick Erickson wrote a post ironically titled, “In NY-23, Conservatives win.” In the column he opined, “I have said all along that the goal of activists must be to defeat Scozzafava. Doug Hoffman winning would just be gravy. A Hoffman win is not in the cards, but we did exactly what we set out to do — crush the establishment backed GOP candidate.” In numerous attempts, this author has failed to find where in his blog Mr. Erickson actually ever stated that as his goal. If conservatives actually believe that defeating “the establishment backed GOP candidate” is what they “set out to do,” it will be a long time before they can finally set their sights on Democrats. Four days after his election to congress, Representative Owens voted in favor of the healthcare bill. In their quest for ideological purity, the conservative base gave Nancy Pelosi an extra vote.

If conservatives continue to fight the GOP establishment, 2010 could be a disappointing year for the party. Conservative groups are already mobilizing to defeat Florida Republican Governor Charlie Christ in his senate campaign. His popularity, cross over appeal, and fundraising prowess (which is especially important in an expensive state like Florida) should make him the ideal candidate. But the Republican base is rallying behind a young, conservative, former state assembly speaker named Marco Rubio. Rubio’s poll numbers, however, are not nearly as strong in a general election as Christ’s are. All over the country a similar trend is occurring. Just two days after Christmas in Illinois, conservative Republican senate candidate Andy Martin began airing a radio ad that openly questioned the sexual orientation of then front-runner Mark Kirk. Conservatives are determined to win their primaries, but the more successful they are at this, the less successful the Republican Party may be in November.

There is still a lot of hope for Republicans going into 2010. John McCain won 69 districts that are represented by Democrats, where as Barack Obama won only 8 that are represented by Republicans. In fact, 39 Democrats represent districts that John McCain won by more than 5 points. Republicans only control 3 districts that Barack Obama won by the same margin. In addition, conservatives should look at Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts as an example of the electoral success Republicans can achieve by working together. Brown was supported by both moderates and conservatives, and he was able to pull off a very impressive win in a very blue state. If Republicans can learn the lessons of the Scott Brown campaign, 2010 should be a very good year for the party.