What Ramesh Ponnuru has written about Tuesday's wins is right in so many ways:
More important, a few Republican candidates have demonstrated that it is possible to transcend the party's conservative-moderate divide. In Virginia, Robert McDonnell won a landslide — the first Republican win in a governor's race there in 12 years — by running as a problem solver. Social conservatives know he is one of them. But independent voters strongly backed him too. Voters as a whole trusted him more than his Democratic opponent on everything from fixing the roads to strengthening the economy. Once he had that trust, Democrats were unable to get voters to see him as frighteningly conservative, although they tried to make hay out of a hard-right master's thesis McDonnell wrote in 1989.
[Disclosure: I consulted for the McDonnell campaign, and these are my personal views on why he won.]
In the wake of McDonnell's landslide, many observers have pointed to his brand of "pragmatism" to make the case that McDonnell -- and not Hoffman in NY-23 -- is the way forward for conservatives in 2010.
But to point to McDonnell as a subrosa moderate profoundly misses the point. McDonnell is a strong conservative who early in the campaign put Deeds on the defensive by running against Obama and Pelosi's policies, most notably card check and cap-and-trade. There was never any doubt as to McDonnell's conservative bona fides.
But even though McDonnell was in fact a true conservative, there was no need to make the election about those credentials. McDonnell's conservatism spoke for itself.
What the campaign keyed in on very early is that most voters aren't ideological. In a time of crisis, they first and foremost want problems solved -- and specifically, the problems created by too much government meddling and taxes to go away.
Wait, not ideological? So Ruffini's saying we need to run moderates? No. That is precisely the opposite of what I am saying.
Because very few independents care about ideological name-checks, they won't be swayed by scare tactics trying to persuade them that Candidate X is the ideological second-coming of Attila the Hun. We saw this with the thesis attacks. Candidates have wide latitude to run as who they actually are, so long as they can persuade voters they'll deal with the bread and butter issues (which was McDonnell's calling card).
In a purple state like Virginia, you can win by running as a liberal and a problem-solver (Kaine), as a moderate and a problem-solver (Warner), and as a strong conservative and a problem-solver (McDonnell).
Faced with that choice, why wouldn't we choose to run the conservative every time? A non-ideological electorate gives us more leeway to run conservatives in blueish/purple states, not less. To get a flavor of this in action, just look at the closing slide of McDonnell's ads:
The ubiquitous "Jobs Governor" branding and the spinning icons highlighting different issues is evocative of the desire for practical, clickable solutions to everyday problems shown in another recent marketing campaign.
Fixing Northern Virginia traffic? There's an app for that.
Jobs? There's an app for that.
Education? There's an app for that.
Essentially, whatever the issue was, Bob McDonnell wanted you he had the proverbial "app for that" -- a set of practical solutions not overtly branded as left, center, or right.
Considering the issue void that was the Creigh Deeds campaign, it was just what the doctor ordered.
Republicans in Virginia have struggled to make their prescriptions relevant to swing voters. Our issues in local elections have traditionally been issues like taxes and immigration that don't always lend themselves to policy heft. And a lack of policy heft has translated into an intangible sense that there's not enough "there there."
This was the central challenge facing the McDonnell campaign at its outset, and so it systematically sought to dismantle this critique by branding McDonnell as a practical problem solver without compromising his conservative principles.
Republicans can be specific, detailed, and confident in putting forward solutions relevant to the middle class, while also being more conservative than we have been in recent years (especially with the Bush era spending binge). There's not an either/or tradeoff between conservatism and a policy focus, something the McDonnell campaign proved in Virginia this year.
The lesson of the McDonnell campaign: Maintain your conservative principles, but make the election about policy. And whatever the issue, make sure you've got an app for that.