Over on twitter, Sean Trende points out that since 2000, in forty-nine competitive Senate races, the Republican Senate candidate has run ahead of the Republican presidential candidate in only fourteen. The astute Dan McLaughlin wrote that this was a “staggering indictment” of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee. I’m not sure what to make of Trende’s number, but I think it gets at something real, and I think McLaughlin’s critique extends beyond the RSCC.
At the senatorial level (even more than the presidential level), 2012 revealed that Republicans have a an out-of-date agenda and media strategy to go along with a voting base that is in relative decline. This especially shows up in high-turnout presidential election years.
Republicans lost twenty-five out of thirty-three Senate races in 2012. The self-immolations of Todd Akin and Mourdock have gotten much of the attention, but I don’t think those are the most revealing cases. Better to look at Wisconsin and Virginia. Both are purple states whose 2012 Republican Senate candidates were strong on paper. Tommy Thompson had been a four term governor of Wisconsin who was a national leader in welfare reform. George Allen was basically a cyborg built to win elections in 1990s Virginia. Thompson and Allen not only lost their Senate races, they finished slightly behind Romney in their home state. One can come up with excuses. Thompson got old. Allen never recovered from his infamous 2006 “macaca” commentthough Allen won a larger share of the vote in 2006 than in 2012. The excuses don’t quite satisfy. Romney, for all of his faults, was better at appealing to 2012 persuadable voters than Thompson and Allen.
Maybe it is because Thompson and Allen were washed up and foisted on the party by the establishment. What about Ted Cruz? He certainly wasn’t establishment. Cruz was also young, hyperarticulate, and had a strong ideological profile. He was also a winner. And he also ran slightly behind Romney in his home state of Texas.
There used to be this conventional wisdom that Republicans needed to go to the “center” to win. Those who believed this ended up being surprised by the political career of Ronald Reaganwho came from his party’s right-wing and won sweeping general election victories. Reagan showed that Republicans could both go right and win over persuadables. They even had a name for the phenomenon. There was a group called the “Reagan Democrats.”
What voters would a Ted Cruz win that Romney lost? There are probably some strong conservative identifiers that stayed home because of Romney’s obvious opportunism, but probably not enough to make much of a difference by themselves. I don’t see the Ted Cruz of 2012 making many inroads among the mostly downscale “missing white voters” that Sean Trende identified, or reversing the Republican party’s continuing slide among Latinos and Asian-Americans. It is doubtful that Republican losses among any of those groups were because the Republican presidential candidate did not speak the language (however eloquently) of a Tea Party rally. It is tough to see how the Ted Cruz of 2012 produces many “Ted Cruz Democrats.”
The point isn’t to pick on Cruz. The point is we don’t know what kind of message will work best with persuadable voters. There isn’t much of a language or strategy (yet) for uniting Tea Party voters with Democrat-voting persuadables in federal-level issues. This is where the RSCC and the rest of the Republican establishment are letting their candidates down. The institutional Republican party is failing to give its candidates the analytical tools and media best practices for reaching today’s electorate in today’s media environment. Learning what works best takes time, Republicans are behind, and individual campaigns have short time horizons. The institutional party is in the position to make the long-term investments to help its candidates communicate better with more voters. If they can do that, it increases the chances that talented right-of-center candidates will win over the next generation of “Fill-in-the-blank Democrats.”