Stellar GOP performance in California shows Republicans can turn blue to red when they talk to — not at — voters

California last week delivered a lesson that should reassure anxious Republicans and cause confident Democrats to keep their guard up: despite what the punditry say about the doomed demographic future of the GOP, good Republican candidates who run smart campaigns can win.

The latest example of this truism came from California’s Central Valley, where Republican Andy Vidak bested his Democratic opponent by more than 5 points on May 23rd in the special election primary for the 16th Senate District. Vidak received 49.8 percent of the vote, less than 1 percent below the 50 percent threshold necessary to avoid a runoff under California election law. Regardless, the fact remains that the Republican candidate won a near-majority of the vote in a district that boasts a 20-point Democratic advantage in voter registration and a majority Latino population, and that has been kept blue for more than a decade.

It’s never wise to read too much into any one election, but the Republican's impressive vote margin there is striking in and of itself. Democrats couldn't utilize all of their built-in advantages in the district to win; nor could they write off their loss to a technicality. The chief Democratic candidate, Leticia Perez, outraised Vidak by a few hundred thousand dollars, and received a major financial boost from the state party. Perez, in her own right, was a strong candidate, so much so that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was reportedly hoping she would run for Congress in 2014. Yes, it was a short special election campaign with low voter turnout, but that alone doesn't explain the Republican's win in the vote tally.

Rather, the race was ultimately decided by the fact that good candidates who are snug fits for the districts they run in tend to perform well. Republicans across the country next year should heed this lesson.

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The 16th Senate District is largely agricultural, and Vidak, with a strong background as a farmer himself, combined his strengths with the voters’ concerns. His campaign made issue over the failure of Sacramento to solve the region’s clean water crisis, asking why the red-tape strangled state government wasn’t spending the money granted to it by the Environmental Protection Agency to do so. Boring? Maybe, but it mattered to the voters in the Central Valley. He criticized the California elites for picking environmental protections for the smelt fish over solving the region's water shortage. When the state legislature passed a resolution supporting immigration reform in Washington, Vidak immediately applauded it, a smart move in a majority-Latino district. He attacked California’s hindering of fracking development, which would bring jobs and revenue to the Valley.

Instead of regurgitating typical Republican talking points, Vidak applied his conservative values to the issues that actually mattered to his Democratic-leaning audience, and managed to convince a plurality of the voters to join him along the way. He refused to allow his campaign to get bogged down in social issues that don’t play well in California or that would have given his Democratic opponent a chance to attack.

Republicans running in tough environments down the ballot next year should absorb the lessons behind Vidak’s victory, and adopt his blueprint for their own campaigns. The GOP might win in urban environments, and make inroads in the northeast, if it begins to translate its broad, limited government message into specific solutions for specific problems. It's not hard to convince voters that government is big, but it's quite another task to persuade voters that cutting red tape and regulation will reap benefits. If the GOP begins to more clearly communicate to voters how conservative policies will help their families, cities, and communities, we may be surprised at the results. Andy Vidak's campaign demonstrated on Tuesday night that that formula can win.

Of course at the end of the day, Vidak’s stellar performance was only a small moment in a random state Senate special election. It could be written off as an outlier, instead of being indicative of a broader trend. The runoff may end differently. Regardless, Vidak's performance remains an encouraging reminder that conservatism is not dead, nor is the Republican Party, as long as it remembers to talk to — and not at — the voters it is looking to win over.

Clark, formerly the deputy digital rapid response director for Mitt Romney, currently works as an account executive at Hynes Communications, and contributes to CaliforniaBriefing.com.

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