Nobody's Fault but Their Own

George Allen for Senate

Former Virginia senator George Allen meets with supporters.

If there was anything Republicans should have been surprised about in this month’s elections, it was their rout in the Senate. Not only did they lose races against vulnerable Democratic incumbents in GOP leaning states—Missouri, Florida, and Montana, for instance—but they also lost almost every competitive open race and failed to hold a vacant one in Indiana.

Politico reports that GOP leaders are working to prevent a repeat of this scenario by exerting more control over the nomination process. Republicans believe that they would have done better had they kept politicians like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock out of the picture. The goal for the next four years is to erase the Tea Party-versus-Washington narrative that has made it difficult to get establishment Republicans through the primary process:

“We ought to make certain that if we get engaged in primaries that we’re doing it based on the desires, the electability and the input of people back in the states that we’re talking about,” Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, the incoming National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman, told POLITICO. “And not from the perception of what political operatives from Washington, D.C., think about who ought to be the candidate in state X.”

The first-term Moran, who was elected to the spot last week by his Senate colleagues, tapped incoming Texas freshman Sen. Ted Cruz as a vice chairman for grass roots and outreach. The plan, according to party leaders, is to employ Cruz’s tea party star power to help win over activist groups that may be wary of the NRSC and help unify the GOP behind a single candidate in crucial Senate races.

It’s good that Republicans want to bridge the divides in their party, but—like the focus on immigration by Republican leaders in the wake of Mitt Romney’s defeat—this is a misreading of what happened on Election Day. Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock were the only two candidates who could plausibly be associated with the Tea Party, and in the case of the former, it’s hard to say that he was the standard-bearer for Missouri conservatives; the state treasurer, Sarah Steelman, had received endorsements from Sarah Palin and the Tea Party Express and was as much a candidate of the right as Akin was.

To put this another way, Republicans lost 9 of the 12 competitive Senate races this year, but it was only in two of those that right-wing candidates sunk the party’s chances. In the remaining seven, Republicans lost fielding the kind of candidates GOP leaders say they are now looking for. Virginia’s George Allen, Montana’s Danny Rehberg, Ohio’s Josh Mandel, North Dakota’s Rick Berg—these were all establishment candidates with conservative credentials who nonetheless lost their races.

The GOP’s problem goes beyond candidate quality and can be summed up in a single question: What do they have to offer? There was a lot wrong with Ross Douthat’s New York Times column yesterday, but what he got right was the observation that Republicans have nothing to offer ordinary Americans beset by economic and social insecurity. It’s possible (though highly unlikely) that tax cuts for the rich are what the economy needs to break through to a stronger recovery. But new tax cuts don’t resonate for the large number of Americans who want to know how the GOP can increase their wages, fix their schools, and save their homes.

This is, relatedly, the reason I don’t expect much success from the current push to rebrand the Republican Party as friendly to immigrants or responsive to working-class concerns. As long as the GOP refuses to reconsider its policies, there’s no amount of language that will fix its problems. But this kind of introspection is difficult—the kind of policies that might help ordinary people are ones that cut against the anti-government—of all kinds—message of the last four years.

But that just underscores the extent to which figures like Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal—new head of the Republican Governor’s Association—have to do more than promise to “compete for every vote”; they need to show how they can help improve people's lives. At the moment, Americans just aren’t confident that they're up to the task.

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