Replacing the "old-school Republican mandate" with Whole Foods and Tea Party values
Lately, I'm frequently asked by Republican campaigns, party executives, consultants and think-tank leaders about how to connect better with Tea Party or libertarian voters.
Partying with Tea Party partiers
It's for good reason that Republican operatives want to connect with Tea Partiers. After all, Rasmussen suggests that a generic Tea Party candidate is more popular than more traditional Republican candidates.
"Republican leaders should be embarrassed," notes conservative icon Richard Viguerie. "Instead, the Republican establishment disdains this populist uprising. Rather than embracing this genuine movement, establishment politicians and consultants are calculating how to co-opt, sideline, or even defeat the newest phenomenon in politics: tea partiers."
GOP leaders are now observing what conservative movement people have known for some time.
"The media are paying attention now," observes conservative movement writer Robert Stacy McCain. "They have no choice. Over the past nine months, hundreds of thousands of citizens have answered the Tea Party movement's call to direct involvement in politics. Their activism has ignited the spark that now threatens to incinerate the agenda of Hope and Change that once seemed impervious to conservative opposition."
The recent NY CD-23 race showed two things. The Tea Party movement doesn't seem quite organized enough (yet) to actually win a major race, but we are clearly organized enough to knock out an establishment Republican candidate.
The Crist-Rubio senatorial primary in Florida will probably serve as the major test between these two factions. Alternately, one could look at the Alabama gubernatorial race to see how the chips will fall when a much broader range of GOP candidates jump into the fray.
This Tea Party veteran would like to offer some quick advice to those trying to obtain the support of the Tea Party crowd:
- Republicans are poised to make some electoral gains in 2010. "The prevalence of the Tea Party movement does hold a cautionary note for the GOP -- if they win," blogged Pat Ruffini. "The danger is that Republicans will interpret a victory as a sign that all is well in the party, and that they can go back to their old ways pre-2008. In other words, they'll confuse a Teapublican victory for an old-school Republican mandate." I wholeheartedly concur.
- A candidate, organization or political party has to earn the support of the Tea Party folks. Mouthing recently rediscovered words of fiscal conservatism isn't enough. Those who want Tea Party support will have to become a Tea Party personality or organization.
- Michelle Malkin's sage advice: "Memo to GOP candidates: Do not call yourself the 'Tea Party backed candidate' if, in fact, Tea Party groups aren’t backing you."
- Candidates with bad voting records (especially on issues like stimulus spending, Medicare Part D, etc.) can't simply make these records disappear. For those guilty of expanding the size or indebtedness of government, a fresh bold idea might be to sincerely apologize for these votes and demonstrate some sort of plausible plan to change one's fiscal direction.
- Don't (and I see this time and time again) offer the same old worn-out GOP platitudes about cutting taxes. Deficit spending is a big issue to Tea Party people and these folks are an understandably distrustful lot. Folks who promise tax cuts but either don't deliver or provide only minor tax relief while continuing to vote for deficit-busting legislation won't earn the support of the Tea Party crowd.
The verdict may still be out regarding whether the Tea Party movement has the organizational and leadership skills to consistently win elections. However, one thing is already certain: We already know how to make a lot of noise. Considering that a considerable portion of Tea Party organizers have ties to the Ron Paul movement, this should come as no surprise.
"The Tea Party Movement is determined to save America," wrote Vigeurie. "Republican Party leaders would be unwise to try to co-opt, sideline, or defeat it. Perhaps they should welcome the new leadership into the party as their single most promising survival tactic"
Those darned Whole Foods, South Park and Starbucks Republicans
Although the GOP ignored them (to their misfortune) in 2006 and 2008, there is a large and growing bloc of voters who are fiscally conservative but are turned off by some of the more extreme social conservatism (Internet gambling bans, Terri Schiavo case, etc.) associated with the Republican Party. Like the Tea Party movement, there are a lot of Ron Paul supporters in this demographic group.
The Tea Party movement is, to a great degree, a populist one. This other group of potential Republican voters is more somewhat more elitist and certainly less socially conservative than many Tea Party folks. This younger and upwardly mobile crowd tends to be somewhat libertarian -- not to say that there aren't plenty of Tea Party libertarians. The common tie between these two groups is one often ignored by the Republican establishment: consistent fiscal conservatism.
"Let the Democrats have the Starbucks set, goes the thinking [of some GOP leaders], and we'll grab working-class families," wrote Michael Petrilli in the Wall Street Journal while dubbing this second group of fiscally-conservative potential GOP voters "Whole Foods Republicans."
This Starbucks-drinking, South Park-watching and Whole Foods-shopping libertarian does not buy into this line of thinking. Nor does Starbucks, as they've taken some not-so-sugary lumps from Jon Stewart over their decision to cobrand with self-described "conservative with libertarian leanings" Joe Scarborough.
The South Park Republicans of 2001 and 2002 became "South Park refugees" by 2006. As these folks graduated from college, joined the work force, became married and started raising children, many of them have morphed into Whole Foods Republicans.
Here is Petrilli's suggestion:
What's needed is a full-fledged effort to cultivate "Whole Foods Republicans"—independent-minded voters who embrace a progressive lifestyle but not progressive politics. These highly-educated individuals appreciate diversity and would never tell racist or homophobic jokes; they like living in walkable urban environments; they believe in environmental stewardship, community service and a spirit of inclusion. And yes, many shop at Whole Foods, which has become a symbol of progressive affluence but is also a good example of the free enterprise system at work. (Not to mention that its founder is a well-known libertarian who took to these pages to excoriate ObamaCare as inimical to market principles.)
What makes these voters potential Republicans is that, lifestyle choices aside, they view big government with great suspicion. There's no law that someone who enjoys organic food, rides his bike to work, or wants a diverse school for his kids must also believe that the federal government should take over the health-care system or waste money on thousands of social programs with no evidence of effectiveness. Nor do highly educated people have to agree that a strong national defense is harmful to the cause of peace and international cooperation.
Petrilli expands his view a bit more:
Even more important is the party's message on divisive social issues. When some Republicans use homophobic language, express thinly disguised contempt toward immigrants, or ridicule heartfelt concerns for the environment, they affront the values of the educated class. And they lose votes they otherwise ought to win.
This sounds very similar to words Senator Jim DeMint's penned in the same newspaper:
To win back the trust of the American people, we must be a "big tent" party. But big tents need strong poles, and the strongest pole of our party -- the organizing principle and the crucial alternative to the Democrats -- must be freedom. The federal government is too big, takes too much of our money, and makes too many of our decisions. If Republicans can't agree on that, elections are the least of our problems. [...]
[...] Freedom will mean different things to different Republicans, but it can tether a diverse coalition to inalienable principles. Republicans can welcome a vigorous debate about legalized abortion or same-sex marriage; but we should be able to agree that social policies should be set through a democratic process, not by unelected judges. Our party benefits from national-security debates; but Republicans can start from the premise that the U.S. is an exceptional nation and force for good in history. We can argue about how to rein in the federal Leviathan; but we should agree that centralized government infringes on individual liberty and that problems are best solved by the people or the government closest to them.
"The races in Virginia and New Jersey show what can happen when the GOP sticks to its core economic message instead of playing wedge politics," noted Pertilli, reflecting my own observations. "Both Republican candidates won majorities of college-educated voters. Their approach attracted Sam's Club Republicans and Whole Foods Republicans alike."
The GOP could be eating Whole Foods cake at populist Tea Parties
Candidates who run on Ruffini's "old-school Republican mandate" may win in 2010, but their base will certainly be strengthened by adding one or both of the aforementioned demographic groups. A candidate who can appeal to more traditional Republicans, the Tea Party crowd and Whole Foods Republicans could create a mandate not seen since 2004 or the Reagan years.
Smart leadership at the helm of the USS Republican would be steering the ship with the current in the direction of Wholefoods Republicans and Tea Party conservatives. The ship wouldn't even have to be powered at full steam, as Obama, Reid and Pelosi seem to be determined to provide plenty of wind for both of these movements. By disregarding the rocks of big-government conservatism, fighting the libertarian current, or ignoring the wind provided by the Democratic overreach, Republican leaders could be poised to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.