On Tuesday night at then-candidate Katrina Shealy’s victory party at the Wingate Hotel in Lexington, the celebration was somewhat tempered. As it became clear that Shealy would oust Jake Knotts and ascend to the State Senate, it became equally clear that Barack Obama would be re-elected President of the United States.
Like many in attendance, one man scowled at the television screen, unable to process the prospect of another four years with Obama as President. He finally said, ”country’s screwed” and chugged his drink.
Next to him, another Republican was more circumspect, hands on his hips, as if speaking in a classroom. “Maybe. But we don’t have to be…we can’t talk to voters like they’re the enemy. You can’t insult someone and expect them to vote for you.”
“If we compromise our principles, there’s no point in winning,” said the first man, pulling down his baseball cap. And then the two men proceeded to talk about how the Republican Party should respond to a thorough electoral defeat.
A few minutes later, Shealy came out and declared Knotts to be all but vanquished and the men abandoned their discussion.
But versions of their conversation have taken place throughout the country since Ohio went into the Obama column.
On the one side is the group that believes the country has lost its conservative way. On the other, is the group, more moderate, that believes the traditional conservative message needs to be modified to adapt to a changing electorate. In between the two sides are many variations.
A Missed Opportunity
What is disheartening to the Republicans is that all the pieces were in place for a victory. The economy does appear to be pulling out of its worst crisis since the Depression, but not nearly fast enough for millions of people still looking for work. The presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, had a resume that looked great on paper. It should have been enough for the GOP, but it wasn’t. So, what happened?
The ancient proverb says that success has many fathers and defeat is an orphan. But the GOP’s resounding defeat has many owners.
It’s easy to start with the campaign and the candidate:
- Even though they had to know the ads were coming, the Romney campaign was caught flat-footed on the attacks from the Obama camp in the summer that painted Romney as a heartless vulture capitalist who shipped jobs overseas for the sake of making a buck. In industrial swing states devastated by the decline in manufacturing, such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and, of course, Ohio, the ads resonated, defining Romney in much the same way George W. Bush defined John Kerry as weak on defense in the summer of 2004, when the main issue was the Iraq War. Romney was hearing this criticism from other Republicans running for president during the primaries. There is no excuse not to have had a counter-attack ready when Obama’s team went after Romney’s time at Bain. The leak of the 47 percent tape just confirmed many peoples' opinions of Romney.
- The Republican National Convention did very little to energize the base and give Romney a lift. Romney's speech was what he'd been saying on the stump for months. And Vice-Presidential nominee Paul Ryan's speech got more attention for his truth-fudging than anything else. Jim DeMint and Sarah Palin, flag-bearers of the most conservative portion of the party, did not speak at all. Compare their absences to the prominence given to Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic candidate for Senate in Massachusetts and arguably the most progressive member of the party, who spoke before Bill Clinton in prime time on the next-to-last night of the convention. The Democrats embraced their base; the Republicans pandered to theirs.
- The Romney campaign’s much ballyhooed Get-Out-The-Vote strategy known as ORCA, didn’t work. At all. When compared to the calculated efficiency and the micro-targeting of the Obama campaign, ORCA was an abject failure.
- The Obama campaign used its ample resources better than Romney campaign used its ample resources. Obama spent more money in online advertising and prioritized field offices as a way to reach voters rather than phone or mail. It worked. There were 11 battleground states and Obama won 10 of them. Even if Romney had won the three most competitive states—Florida, Virginia and Ohio—he still would have lost the Electoral College.
- Inexplicably, the Romney team assumed that Obama’s base (voters under 30 and minorities) would not come out for him as they had in 2008. The Romney camp even factored this assumption into their polling which led to its unaccounted for pre-Election Day confidence.
- Much has been written about Romney’s inability to connect with voters. It’s telling that in the states where he was best known—Michigan, Massachusetts and New Hampshire—he was soundly defeated. Even more hurtful? John McCain got a higher percentage of the Mormon vote in 2008.
- In the end, no one knew what to make of Mitt Romney. The public is used to double-talking politicians, but on numerous issues Romney had changed his mind and multiple times. At times it wasn’t clear that Romney himself knew what he believed, other than he wanted to president. In the presidential primary, Palmetto State voters picked up on this flaw, handing him a double-digit defeat to Newt Gingrich.
But laying the blame for Tuesday’s defeat solely at Romney’s feet would be a mistake. The results suggest something deeper.
- The Republicans began 2012 optimistic they could win the Senate. Instead, they lost seats. Controversial candidates Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana were routed. But even more moderate candidates like Scott Brown in Massachusetts and Heather Wilson in New Mexico were defeated.
- Liberal initiatives like gay marriage and marijuana legalization passed in multiple states.
- In 2000 New Mexico was a swing state. Now it’s firmly Democratic. In 2008 Colorado and Nevada were swing states. They can now be considered Democratic. The reason? The rising Latino population. Is Texas the next former Republican stronghold to turn into a swing state?
- Not only is the Latino vote growing, the top of the Republican ticket is winning less of it. George W. Bush won 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004 when it comprised eight percent of the electorate. Romney got only 27 percent of Latinos to vote for him and they now make up 10 percent of all voters. Numbers like these suggest it’s more than just immigration that concerns Latino voters about Republican candidates.
- It’s no surprise voters under 30 went for Obama. But the margin was startling, especially considering the struggles new college grads are having in the workforce. Obama won the demographic 60 to 36 percent.
- The conservative media, notably Fox News, did not help matters by ignoring poll after poll that showed Obama with a consistent, albeit small, lead since the general election campaign started. Instead of focusing on Romney’s deficiencies it focused only on Obama’s. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, several notable Republicans such as George Will and Michael Barone said Romney would cruise to victory. Fox’s fact bubble led to embarrassing scenes like this. By the end of last week, Republicans like David Frum castigated Fox for giving voice to extremists like Donald Trump and other fringe elements of the Party over the last four years. It was great for ratings, but Fox’s perpetual umbrage-taking and harping at the president over non-issues served to alienate an awful lot of people.
When Patch spoke to Democratic voters about what Republicans could do to appeal to more minorities they spoke specifically about policies rather than skin color and believe the GOP speaks to the rich rather than to the millions who aspire to be in or just stay in the Middle Class. Trotting out the occasional female, African-American or Hispanic is not enough.
Democrats have now won the popular vote in five of the last six presidential races. Prior to that, Republicans won five of six races. The Democrats turned things in 1992 with Bill Clinton. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that the Cold War ended and the country was less concerned about military matters. But Clinton pursued a “Third Way” that infuriated many in his own party. That third way helped him become the last president with bi-partisan solutions to the nation’s problems. Perhaps the Republicans will adopt a Third Way of their own.
SC Republicans Have Become National Figures as Party Has Stumbled
Whatever the problems may have been with the GOP or Romney at the national level, none of them affected the South Carolina Republican Party.
All five Repiublican members of the House cruised to re-election. Only Mick Mulvaney in the fifth district had an opponent clear 40 percent of the vote. The new seventh Congressional district in the Grand Strand went to Republican Tom Rice, who handily defeated Gloria Tinubu.
In less than two years, Trey Gowdy (R-4), Tim Scott (R-1) and Mulvaney have all become national figures, albeit for different reasons. Gowdy has maintained a high profile as a member of the House Oversight Committee; Scott for his ability to break through traditional barriers for the GOP; and Mulvaney for his willingness to cross party lines to reach solutions.
Sen. Jim DeMint and Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-3), rather than being disheartened by the election defeat, appear to be emboldened.
Even though only three of the nine candidates it supported won their races, DeMint’s Senate Conservative Fund sent out an email to supporters saying it was “no time to capitulate” on the subject of tax increases for the wealthy.
Duncan said the he believed “that the House is now the last line of defense for preserving freedom in this country.”
But, longtime GOP consultant Chip Felkel thinks it might be a mistake for Republicans to keep digging in their heels. During a panel discussion (Disclosure: I was also on the panel), Felkel said the party has to move beyond just being the party of “no” and understand that the real mandate from the election is for both parties to work together to solve problems.
Still in Command in State
In statewide elections the GOP is still very much in control of the House, Senate and Governor’s mansion.
The Democrats meanwhile have deep fissures within their party. Just last month, several Democrats endorsed Republican John Courson in State Senate District 20 and told state Chair Dick Harpootlian not to bother seeking another term. Harpootlian has indicated that he will not.
Just because things are going well in the Palmetto State, does not mean it isn’t affected by what happened nationally. Matt Moore, Executive Director of the South Carolina Republican Party, “In the next two or three months we’re going to look hard at what worked and what didn’t,” Moore said.
Gov. Nikki Haley, who endorsed Romney early in the primary season, agrees with Moore in the sense that the loss will force the GOP to look in the mirror. “It’s been an old guard party for a long time and it’s stayed with old guard thoughts,” Haley said. “Those thoughts should still be the basis of the party, but it’s time to modernize.”
The demographic changes that the GOP failed to respond to nationally haven’t happened in South Carolina. As in 2000, the state is roughly two-thirds white. What’s changed over the last decade is that the Latino population has doubled. Still, Hispanics make up only about five percent of voters here. Nevertheless Haley thinks their concerns need to be addressed. “We have to take illegal immigration off the table as an issue. We have to stop talking about it, solve it and move on,” she said. “Politicians of both parties need to work together to solve this problem.”
“We have to talk to minorities and explain why they should support us,” Haley said.
“For example, we need to expand the worker VISA program. There are plenty of immigrants who come here and make the country great and we need to keep them here. The process needs to be simpler.”
While the GOP brand may be a bit bruised after Tuesday, it’s hardly on the ropes, especially here in South Carolina.
Moore noted that for all the hand-wringing, the GOP candidate for president did receive 48 percent of the vote and that 30 of the 50 states have Republican governors. “It shows that people aren’t inherently opposed to the Republican message.”