By David Hill - 05/25/10 10:23 PM EDT
The victory of Rand Paul raises the question of what it means to be Republican.
Finding an appropriate answer to that question will preoccupy much of John Cornyn’s time at the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) between now and November. Let’s hope this doesn’t become another Charlie Crist situation where NRSC calculations about likelihood of victory to bolster a Senate takeover cloud judgments about matters that will affect the Republican Party and its image long after November’s votes are counted.
No one — at least no one who counts — is going to say that Republicans should impose a litmus test that overturns nominations gained fair and square under the rules of a state party. But it does seem worth pondering whether national Republican dollars and legitimacy should prop up a libertarian insurgency that has no genuine interest in the future of a Republican Party.
Cornyn, a former longtime client whom I respect, is not well-served by his Texas background to make these decisions. The Texas Republicanism that shaped Cornyn’s understanding of party is a poor excuse for organized partisanship. Former Gov. George W. Bush and his chief consultant, Karl Rove, the architects of Cornyn’s own rise to power, had no particular purpose for a party organization, so they allowed quirky Tom Pauken to control the reins of the Texas GOP, defining the Republican brand in a way that accounts for challenges like the textbook mess that Texas Republicans still confront today. A weak party, led by ideologues who are mostly concerned with pressing a narrow issue agenda that suits their own sensibilities rather than the party’s future prospects, is not likely to make decisions that protect the party’s future.
In many other states, party hierarchies and leaders play active roles in protecting the party’s image through serving as gatekeepers to nominations and stewards of party funds, helping those who advance the party agenda and leaving those who don’t hanging, bereft of party perks and privileges. In these states, partisan legislators caucus to establish priorities and issue agendas that define their party and its nominees. They purposefully recruit candidates who adhere to party values. They strategize for party victories. That doesn’t happen in a partisan Texas. Republican governors and legislative leaders happily consort with Democrats, helping them enact their agendas and raise money to get reelected. It telegraphs the message to voters and even officeholders that party labels don’t really mean that much.
This is where the Rand Paul candidacy becomes sticky. If Cornyn does things the Texas way, allowing Paul to do his thing without regard for Paul’s less-than-Republican agenda or his views’ impact on our party’s imagery, then lots of GOP candidates across the country at various levels are going to be hurt by a laissez faire policy at Cornyn’s NRSC. I am already aware of state legislative and congressional candidates, far from Kentucky, who have been put on defense because of the image of Republicanism that Paul reflects. There’s more at stake here than control of the U.S. Senate.
I don’t begrudge Rand Paul’s stark libertarian philosophy. He seems like an honorable, forthright fellow. But his agenda is not supported by winning majorities in most of America. So Republican dollars shouldn’t be spent helping him. He will widely undermine traditional GOP positions and strategies.
David Hill has been a Republican pollster since 1984. This cycle he is polling for gubernatorial campaigns in four states.