What it takes to win

David Axelrod, President Barack Obama’s chief political aide, went so far to say the contest up in the Adirondacks was the only race that really mattered. Thus, Mr. Axelrod was dismissing the sweeps in Virginia and New Jersey as unimportant when compared to what he sees as a sign that internal Republican divisions will allow Democrats to emerge relatively unscathed next November regardless of how upset most Americans might be today with the president’s programs and the performance of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) Congress.

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That, to put it gently, is wishful thinking. In fact, the topsy-turvy race that took place up in New York this year will make it more rather than less likely that the Republicans will be united next fall.

Without rehashing the events that led to the candidacy of a woman so liberal that she had virtually no ability to hold the support of her own party’s voters and instead forced them to turn to a virtually unknown third-party alternative, it should be noted that what happened up there sent a message to Republican leaders that has been received and is apparently being heeded.

Thus, while the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) enraged conservatives by spending nearly a million dollars on behalf of a candidate who had vowed to oppose her congressional Republican colleagues on virtually every issue, NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) issued a statement after the election demanding that New York Republicans reform a system that allows party leaders to select candidates in smoke-filled rooms without considering the views of the voters whose support they will need to win.

Just as important was a statement issued by Texas Sen. John Cornyn pledging that the National Republican Senatorial Committee will not try to dictate to primary voters by spending money on candidates in contested GOP primaries, but leave the ultimate decision on Senate nominations to the voters of the various states.

Liberal analysts suggested after Tuesday’s election that what Republican “moderates” faced in New York was a revolt by “tea party activists” and out-of-control “social conservatives.” Indeed, Dan Balz of The Washington Post seemed in his analysis to confuse the Club for Growth with the National Right to Life Committee. In fact, Dede Scozzafava, who sparked the revolt, was not just anathema to the social right, but to every segment of the Republican coalition.

Egged on perhaps by establishment Republicans who attacked the Conservative Party candidate and his Republican Party backers as absolutists who simply couldn’t tolerate a “moderate” or, as New York Times columnist David Brooks described her, a “centrist,” analysts predicted ideological civil war from Maine to California that might doom the GOP in 2010. In fact, however, the conservatives who spoke out in opposition to the Scozzafava candidacy were saying not that they won’t support candidates who disagree with them some of the time, but that asking them to dutifully line up behind a candidate who shares virtually none of their values is asking too much.

Winning parties do indeed have to both tolerate and welcome those who aren’t with them all the time, but parties that stand for nothing end up losing. The quasi-Machiavellian decision by the New York GOP establishment to nominate a candidate who supported none of what they stood for in the hope that she might win by attracting liberal Democratic votes didn’t work. The boys and girls in the smoke-filled room chose her from a field of eight potential nominees knowing that she was the only one whom Conservative Party Chairman Mike Long couldn’t get behind. The others weren’t all diehard conservatives, but they were all acceptable.

Winning elections requires candidates and issue positions that appeal both to a party’s base and to enough voters outside that base to outpoll one’s opponents.

Republicans in Virginia and New Jersey were able to grasp this elementary truth, but others seem oblivious to it.

Losing one seat in the Adirondacks will have been a small price to pay if it convinces Republican candidates around the country that to win, they have to pay some attention both to their electoral base and to the views of the voters whose support they need to win.


Keene is chairman of the American Conservative Union and a managing associate with the Carmen Group, a Washington-based governmental consulting firm.