Commentary Magazine


Topic: Cory Gardner

How the Midterms Vindicated Both the Establishment and the Grassroots

On Saturday night I opened the New York Times website and saw the headline I’d been waiting since last Tuesday to see. “With Fear of Being Sidelined, Tea Party Sees the Republican Rise as New Threat,” the Times declared, and I wondered why it took four days since the Republican landslide victory in the congressional midterms and coinciding gubernatorial races for the Times to find some way to spin the massive GOP victory as a Republican civil war.

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On Saturday night I opened the New York Times website and saw the headline I’d been waiting since last Tuesday to see. “With Fear of Being Sidelined, Tea Party Sees the Republican Rise as New Threat,” the Times declared, and I wondered why it took four days since the Republican landslide victory in the congressional midterms and coinciding gubernatorial races for the Times to find some way to spin the massive GOP victory as a Republican civil war.

Surely the Times had such a story ready to go; it always has such a story ready to go. Perhaps the paper’s editors wanted to wait for the Sunday edition to really make a splash by republishing essentially the same story they write about four thousand times a year. In any event, there it was, the crystallization of the unthinking man’s midterms narrative: Republicans lose when they lose, and they lose when they win.

Such reporting has become more interesting since the Times embraced data journalism first with Nate Silver and now with its post-Silver Upshot blog. Since the Times’s reporting is usually heavy on wishful thinking and light on facts, the paper would be at risk of its data journalists undoing the narratives the Times’s political reporters and editors work so hard to establish. Such is the case with the Upshot’s latest, “G.O.P. Is Making Progress Toward Presidency but Is Still Playing Catch-Up.”

Not only does the piece debunk the notion that there is some fixed demographic state that will hold true from now on and lock Republicans out of the popular vote, but it also makes clear that there will only be a civil war on the right if Republicans foolishly invent one. In fact, the most notable takeaway from the Upshot piece is that in the battle over whether the colossal rout the Republicans achieved last week proved the “establishment” or the “Tea Party” (a term that has probably just about outlived its usefulness) right, the answer is: both.

First, the debunking of the Democrats’ exceedingly silly argument that they lost so badly simply because of non-presidential year turnout:

The Democratic losses were not simply because of low turnout. Republicans often made significant gains among rural, white voters. Some candidates made inroads among young and Hispanic voters, as well, according to exit polls and county and precinct-level results.

Precisely. Some of the Democrats’ woes had to do with lower-than-2012 turnout and some had to do with the fact that conservatives were expanding their coalition while liberals weren’t. I imagine conservatives wouldn’t mind if Democrats persist in their emphatic denial of reality, though even President Obama–who made a point of trying to delegitimize midterm voters in a typical bout of petulant foot stomping–seems to be coming around to the absurdity of the White House’s initial spin. (Though he is still not quite approaching reality.)

The Upshot’s Nate Cohn continues:

On Tuesday, Joni Ernst, now a Republican senator-elect, won a decisive nine-point victory. She swept much of traditionally Democratic eastern Iowa, where Democrats have long fared well with rural voters.

In Colorado, Cory Gardner, now a senator-elect, also made significant gains among rural white voters. He also outperformed past Republicans in traditionally Democratic, heavily Hispanic counties.

These gains suggest that demographic trends have not doomed Republicans to minority-party status, as some political analysts predicted. Those predictions hinged in part on the assumption that Democrats could fare no worse among white voters than Mr. Obama. That assumption ignored Mr. Obama’s strengths among white voters outside the South.

It’s important to note that the trends haven’t been completely reversed, either. Republicans aren’t doomed but neither are Democrats; indeed, Democrats still have a strong presidential-year coalition. The risk they run is in ignoring the plain fact that Republicans appear to be better capable of making inroads into that Democratic coalition than political prognosticators thought. And since the Democratic electoral coalition is sustained through identity politics and not ideas, if Republicans can negate those identity-politics appeals the Democrats would be in trouble.

But the other lesson here is that the establishment and the grassroots made a superb team in this year’s midterms. The ability of Ernst in Iowa and Gardner in Colorado, among others, to win competitive races in states Obama carried twice showed that the candidate mattered, as the establishment has been emphasizing, and that conservative ideas were winners even in blue states, as the grassroots have been insisting.

Ernst, in fact, was conservative enough to cause Super-Civil Centrist Norm Ornstein to have a breakdown on social media, calling Ernst a “lunatic.” But an important element in allowing those conservative ideas to be heard was the nominations of better candidates, the GOP’s efforts in media training those candidates, and in some cases ensuring the nominations of establishment-friendly candidates who would win quietly. As Chuck Todd accidentally admitted after the election, had one conservative candidate uttered a controversial remark, the press would have forced that remark into every single race throughout the country.

This is not to say the GOP was mistake-free. Indeed, the establishment clearly erred in not intervening to encourage Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Pat Roberts of Kansas to retire–Roberts being an extremely dangerous play since his race turned out to be competitive. But it wasn’t about either the establishment or the grassroots being perfect, it was about not making the kinds of mistakes that change the narrative and toughen the terrain for other candidates around the country. That was a test they passed, and in doing so proved the attractiveness of conservatism even in places it was assumed to be unwelcome.

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Colorado and the End of the War on Women

For the last two election cycles, Democrats have been banking on their endless harping on what they termed a “war on women” allegedly being conducted by their Republican foes. The strategy worked like a charm in 2012 against some comically flawed GOP candidates and seemed, at least to Democrats, to be a gift that could keep on giving indefinitely into the future. But like all good gimmicks, the war on women had a limited shelf life. In an unlikely development, even one of the bastions of the liberal mainstream media has noticed that the attempt to use it to batter credible conservatives is not only inaccurate but also evidence that the Democrats have run out of ideas.

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For the last two election cycles, Democrats have been banking on their endless harping on what they termed a “war on women” allegedly being conducted by their Republican foes. The strategy worked like a charm in 2012 against some comically flawed GOP candidates and seemed, at least to Democrats, to be a gift that could keep on giving indefinitely into the future. But like all good gimmicks, the war on women had a limited shelf life. In an unlikely development, even one of the bastions of the liberal mainstream media has noticed that the attempt to use it to batter credible conservatives is not only inaccurate but also evidence that the Democrats have run out of ideas.

Democrats went into 2014 confident about Mark Udall’s prospects for reelection to the Senate. Nor were they daunted when Republicans nominated their strongest possible contender—Rep. Cory Gardner—to be his opponent. Their optimism was based on faith in Colorado’s changing demographics that supposedly made the state more hostile to the GOP. But they were primarily counting on the utility of the war on women tactic. Wrongly thinking Gardner to be a clone of Missouri Republican Todd Akin whose moronic comments about rape and pregnancy handed the Democrats an undeserved Senate victory in 2012, liberals believed any pro-life conservative could be effectively labeled an enemy of women.

Gardner, an able legislator, rightly thought of as one of his party’s rising stars, has not been so easy to smear. But rather than re-think their strategy, Democrats have doubled down on the attacks attempting to convince voters that the personable and thoughtful Republican was troglodyte misogynist. If the polls are to be believed, the fact Udall has little to say about his own tissue-thin record and that the attacks on Gardner are as illogical as they are nasty have helped put Gardiner in the lead. Just as disconcerting for Democrats is the fact that even the leading liberal media organ in the state has also noticed that their one-issue negative campaign is intellectually bankrupt.

The reliably pro-Democrat Denver Post shocked their readers and the state political establishment on Friday when it endorsed Gardner. The paper not only praised Gardner as a source of “fresh leadership, energy and ideas” but also denounced the Democratic campaign against him:

Rather than run on his record, Udall’s campaign has devoted a shocking amount of energy and money trying to convince voters that Gardner seeks to outlaw birth control despite the congressman’s call for over-the-counter sales of contraceptives. Udall is trying to frighten voters rather than inspire them with a hopeful vision. His obnoxious one-issue campaign is an insult to those he seeks to convince.

The Post rightly thinks their state will be better served by having an influential and bright Republican in the Senate rather than a Democratic dead weight like Udall. It also believes that if the GOP controls both Houses of Congress there will be a better chance of getting things done than the current stalemate with Democrats in control of the upper body, an optimistic evaluation that probably overrates President Obama’s willingness to work with Republicans under any circumstances.

But the significance of the editorial is that it is one more indication that even liberals understand that the war on women smear is nothing more than empty sloganeering.

The country is deeply divided on social issues but, as they always have in the past, most voters are willing to agree to disagree on abortion provided the positions of candidates are rooted in principle and tempered by common sense. Gardner’s support of over-the-counter birth control is not only, as the Post points out, proof that he isn’t out to ban contraception. It’s also a sensible proposal that would eliminate the need for the government to attempt to force religious employers to pay for free birth control coverage in violation, as the Supreme Court ruled in the Hobby Lobby case, of their First Amendment rights of free exercise of religion.

The paper’s defection from the lockstep liberal smears of Republicans may be a watershed moment in American politics. After years of ignoring their responsibility to govern, Democrats may be belatedly learning that even some of their usual cheerleaders are no longer willing to acquiesce, let alone participate in their ad hominem attacks on Republicans. The war on women had a good run as a bulletproof method for rallying single female voters to the Democrats. But even the best of tactics is no substitute for a coherent economic agenda or a workable foreign policy. Nor can it allow a weak Democrat to beat a strong Republican. The race in Colorado is still close and the ability of Democrats to turn out their key constituencies should never be underestimated. But the Gardner-Udall contest may be the one that proves that liberal lies about a bogus war on women no longer work.

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GOP Playing to Win in 2014

In both 2010 and 2012, Republicans threw away golden opportunities to take control of the Senate by nominating outlier candidates that turned likely victories into defeats. The most prominent examples, such as Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell, Nevada’s Sharron Angle, and Missouri’s Todd Akin, illustrated not only how gaffe-ridden politicians could transform unpopular Democratic incumbents into winners but also the profound lack of seriousness on the part of many in the GOP. This kept Harry Reid in office (thanks to Angle) and in charge of the Senate. But it appears that not only have the issues and President Obama’s job performance put the Democrats in a tough position heading into the midterms, but that this year Republicans are behaving as if they are more interested in winning than in ideological purity or pursuing grudges.

The best example of this comes from Colorado where Democrat Mark Udall is up for reelection to his Senate seat. Udall, who was swept in on Obama’s coattails in the 2008 “hope and change” wave, was not thought to be among the most vulnerable Democrats this year. Demographic changes have transformed Colorado into a purple or light blue state in presidential elections. But it is still highly competitive with strong conservative tendencies, especially on issues like gun control, as two Democratic state senators discovered last fall when they were recalled after passing more stringent gun legislation. Udall is a liberal who says he does not regret his vote for ObamaCare and, unlike most Democrats running for reelection, would welcome campaign help from the president. But his ace in the hole this year was a divided Republican party.

The Colorado GOP looked to be ready to tear itself apart again this year with a crowded primary that many expected 2010 Senate nominee and Tea Party favorite Ken Buck—who lost what many felt was a winnable race to Michael Bennet—to win. But, as Politico reports, in a surprising development Buck and two other Republicans pulled out of the race in the last month to clear the field for Rep. Cory Gardner, the man that national Republicans wanted as the nominee. While Gardner won’t have an easy time against Udall, these developments will not only help Republicans in a race that is now considered a tossup; it may be a signal that the GOP, including its Tea Party faction, is playing to win in 2014.

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In both 2010 and 2012, Republicans threw away golden opportunities to take control of the Senate by nominating outlier candidates that turned likely victories into defeats. The most prominent examples, such as Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell, Nevada’s Sharron Angle, and Missouri’s Todd Akin, illustrated not only how gaffe-ridden politicians could transform unpopular Democratic incumbents into winners but also the profound lack of seriousness on the part of many in the GOP. This kept Harry Reid in office (thanks to Angle) and in charge of the Senate. But it appears that not only have the issues and President Obama’s job performance put the Democrats in a tough position heading into the midterms, but that this year Republicans are behaving as if they are more interested in winning than in ideological purity or pursuing grudges.

The best example of this comes from Colorado where Democrat Mark Udall is up for reelection to his Senate seat. Udall, who was swept in on Obama’s coattails in the 2008 “hope and change” wave, was not thought to be among the most vulnerable Democrats this year. Demographic changes have transformed Colorado into a purple or light blue state in presidential elections. But it is still highly competitive with strong conservative tendencies, especially on issues like gun control, as two Democratic state senators discovered last fall when they were recalled after passing more stringent gun legislation. Udall is a liberal who says he does not regret his vote for ObamaCare and, unlike most Democrats running for reelection, would welcome campaign help from the president. But his ace in the hole this year was a divided Republican party.

The Colorado GOP looked to be ready to tear itself apart again this year with a crowded primary that many expected 2010 Senate nominee and Tea Party favorite Ken Buck—who lost what many felt was a winnable race to Michael Bennet—to win. But, as Politico reports, in a surprising development Buck and two other Republicans pulled out of the race in the last month to clear the field for Rep. Cory Gardner, the man that national Republicans wanted as the nominee. While Gardner won’t have an easy time against Udall, these developments will not only help Republicans in a race that is now considered a tossup; it may be a signal that the GOP, including its Tea Party faction, is playing to win in 2014.

Udall is hoping that he can do to Gardner what Bennet did to Buck in 2010 and define a man who is not that well known statewide as an extremist. The success of this familiar Democratic strategy depends on tarring the GOP standard-bearer as a foe of women in an effort to distract the public from Obama’s woes and ObamaCare. Gardner is a social conservative, but he has moderated his views on abortion enough to survive the attack provided he doesn’t hand Udall any Akin-style moronic quotes about rape that will sink him. But with a united party behind him and enough money at his disposal, Gardner has an even chance of knocking off Udall. At the very least, he will force Democrats to spend heavily to defend a seat they thought was not in as much danger as some of their seats in red states like Louisiana, Arkansas, and Alaska.

But the point here is that rather than make a suicidal run at Gardner, Buck cut a deal with him and is now running for the congressional seat that he is vacating. The same was true of the other Republicans who decided that the smart thing to do was to let the strongest candidate have an easy path to November. Tea Partiers who railed last year at establishment types like Karl Rove for wanting winnable Senate candidates may now be listening to reason. Gardner and other Republicans must still prove that they have the campaign discipline that will help them fend off the faux “war on women” smears Democrats will hurl at them and stick to the economy and ObamaCare. If they do, Harry Reid won’t be the majority leader next January.

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