By Nick DAngelo
2012 was not a good year for Republicans. In fact, it was a pretty bad year. The Grand Ol’ Party managed to throw away a prime Senate majority for the second time in as many cycles, and allow the presidency to slip through its fingers. Barack Obama became the only president since Franklin Roosevelt to win reelection with unemployment hovering at 8 percent—and Roosevelt brought it down from 25.
Analysts, party leaders and political scientists have spent the last several months picking apart the Republican strategy, messaging and platform, attempting to find some reason in a result that was so very different from what many expected. So what’s next? 2013 is shaping up to be an important precursor for the future of the party, with the spotlight on three key races: gubernatorial showdowns in New Jersey and Virginia, and the county executive race just downstate in Westchester.
Westchester County was hit hard during the 2012 blue tide. Already an increasingly liberal area, Westchester Republicans lost all but one race. Republican challengers barely breached the 35 percent mark, incumbents fell far short of the expected votes netted and races where millions of dollars had been funneled in order to turn competitive simply were not. I was intimately involved in the local politics leading up to the November election, running a state legislature campaign, and it’s clear that it was near impossible to see this wave coming.
In 2013, Republicans must defend the county’s top post, won in an upset by Rob Astorino four years ago.
Despite the thumping received by his fellow party members only a few months ago, Astorino is in a strong position to be reelected. An honest leader with a backbone, Astorino has taken on uncooperative unions and has made the Democrat-controlled legislature appear infantile. Facing a bench of second-tier opponents, Astorino’s common sense conservatism looks like it will pull him through.
It’s the same model followed by another popular executive just south of Westchester, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey. Now a political juggernaut on the national stage, Christie’s victory was anything but certain four years ago, when he faced a well-funded, deep-rooted incumbent. Tough yet sensible, Christie’s popularity soared post-Hurricane Sandy. Viewed as an aggressive, nearly apolitical leader, Trenton’s Titan is nearly guaranteed a smooth campaign season. Democrats have yet to find a serious challenger.
Astorino and Christie’s strategies are nearly identical; they make sense and they work. Both men are highly respected, incredibly effective, and able to be elected in tough political environments. Yet their model is ignored by the jibber-jabber of the Republican Party. Take a look at the third high profile race of the year: Virginia.
Traditionally a red state, President Obama has carried Virginia twice. In 2009, the conservative credentialed Bob McDonnell sailed to election as governor by putting far-right issues on the back burner and softening his political image. Appearing with his wife and family under a “Bob for Jobs” banner, the message was simplified and broadened. It’s the same strategy Ronald Reagan, the ultimate conservative ideologue, employed in his 1980 presidential bid. Virginia’s presumptive GOP nominee Ken Cuccinelli does not get it.
Cuccinelli, the attorney general most associated with dethroning Obamacare, is bolting to the wings in his bid for governor. Facing off against Clinton-ally Terry McAuliffe, Cuccinelli’s message of far-right gutter politics is hardly competitive in a race that should be simple. Just last week, Cuccinelli, Virginia’s top law enforcement official, suggested civil disobedience as a way to attack the federal health care law’s requirements on contraception.
Recent polling shows the race at a dead heat, a sign Cuccinelli supporters will surely look to as hopeful. But Cuccinelli stands out for his double-digit net negative rating. In short, those who know him don’t like him. Sure to be a bloody fight, Cuccinelli has left himself vulnerable, offering a weak message and making enemies from both parties along the way.
Republicans have a challenge in 2013: remaining legitimate and proving that our message is still relevant in a nation continuously described as center-right. The traditional conservative messaging of Astorino and Christie, sensible and strong, works. The far-rightist quasi-conservatism of Cuccinelli is a lingering failure no conservative can be confident in. I suppose the true challenge is, can we help ourselves from falling into the trap—again?