Election Review: We Remembered November, Now What?

The Republican Governors Association encouraged us to remember November. We listened; after the midterm elections, the GOP picked up more than 60 seats in the House of Representatives, six seats in the U.S. Senate, a majority of governorships, a majority of statehouses, and — for the first time since the 1920s — an absolute majority of state legislators.

In Michigan, the GOP kept the offices of Attorney General and Secretary of State and, in a landslide, our “tough nerd” Rick Snyder reclaimed the Governor’s mansion for the first time since John Engler. In addition, Republicans took the state House, picked up two U.S. House seats, and earned a majority-conservative state Supreme Court. The Republicans have a solid lock on all three branches of state government and a majority of the state’s Congressmen (nine of 16). The lone ranking Democrats are the state’s two U.S. Senators, Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow. And lest we forget, Michigan had a Republican Senator as recently as 2000, when Spencer Abraham — a good Senator but weak campaigner — lost his re-election bid to “Liberal Debbie.”

So now what?

On a national level, the House Republicans are sounding the best possible note. No triumphalism. No gloating. No elephants parading down Pennsylvania Avenue. Instead, John Boehner is making all the right moves, opening the door to compromise but making it clear that the major mandate the GOP possesses is to fix the problems that originated in Democratic profligacy. Marco Rubio’s victory speech was dead on — the GOP didn’t get a resounding endorsement, it got probation. The next two years will decide whether this probation is eligible for early termination or whether the Elephant goes back into solitary confinement.

On a state level, I sincerely hope that Rick Snyder’s election signifies a change of tone within the state GOP. Michigan is an easy win for Republicans who carry the Reagan Democrat banner, so the state party’s decade-long push for hardcore conservative candidates has been simply wrong-headed, and prior election results proved it. Don’t misunderstand; I want a solid conservative victory. But when the state still has strong UAW membership, conservatism must be taught, not imposed by fiat. The Michigan Republicans have not been up to the educational task these last few years. Ron Weiser’s tenure as chairman has been better, but the whole enterprise still feels a bit inbred and tone-deaf.

Nowhere does the dysfunction of Michigan Republicans play out more clearly than in Kent County. Access is circumscribed unless you have a membership to an Ada country club, or so it seems. There is something significant that this cycle, my three phone calls and emails to the county GOP never merited even a form response, yet both Hoekstra’s primary and Snyder’s gubernatorial campaigns eagerly contacted me to help. This is a sharp contrast to my experiences in Kalamazoo County, where a friend and I were eagerly welcomed into the Executive Committee during our undergrad days as officers at the WMU College Republicans, and my brief stay in Ottawa County, where the chairman asked me to coordinate youth activities for the county party. There are too many big-name, big-dollar fish in Kent County to turn it into anything other than an exclusive club, and that’s a damned shame. As long as the Kent County GOP remains the preserve of the elite, opportunities to expand the Republican message will surely be missed.

Of course, navel gazing gets us only so far. The midterm results suggest a few points worth considering:

  1. Republicans should keep in mind that this election was a referendum on Democratic incompetence and over-reach, and not a rousing endorsement of  a specifically Republican platform. Rubio is right: The GOP is on probation, and public-opinion polling supports this perspective.
  2. America is a center-right country. The ideals of the Tea Party resonate strongly with a disaffected mass in the center and right. Republicans should take care to incorporate Tea Party ideas — which, in fairness, are overwhelmingly conservative principles — into the GOP governing paradigm. Why? To avoid a third-party challenge in 2012 that would almost certainly restore the Democrats to power. We cannot risk a second Obama term because we couldn’t stop the next Ross Perot from grabbing a chunk of the disaffected electorate.
  3. The GOP owns Michigan. We must not fail in effecting the transition from a manufacturing economy. Snyder is saying the right things about innovation. We must work very hard to deliver on his promises if we want Michigan’s electoral votes credit the GOP presidential nominee in 2012. In particular, we need a new message to help bring rank-and-file union members back into the GOP.
  4. Republicans across the board need to do a much better job at candidate recruiting, starting at the local level. Justin Amash, the newly elected Congressman from the 3rd District, is a great example of the worst possible candidate earning the nomination. State Sen. Bill Hardiman and Kent County leader Steve Heacock split the “adult” vote in the primary, leaving Amash — a 30-something bomb-thrower who had his state House seat purchased for him by his parents — grabbing the nomination. But Amash, besides his lack of qualification, doesn’t speak to the tenor of Kent County. Amash would fit better in a solidly Republican district; I fear that in coming years, this seat will become vulnerable to takeover by a center-right (instead of far-right) candidate. I hope the Congressman-Elect will pay careful attention to why Ehlers, Henry and Ford did so well here, and why Kent County is not a solidly red county. And don’t get me started on Christine O’Donnell, Joe Miller and Sharron Angle.
  5. Republicans at all level, while retaining their humility about their probationary status, must also govern like conservatives. Center-left candidates were tossed out on their asses all across America. Although some compromise will doubtless be necessary from a purely political standpoint, Republicans simply cannot tax, spend and lobby their way to indolence like they did earlier this decade.

The next two years will be interesting.