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January 19 was the best day for Republicans in a long time. First, Chris Christie was inaugurated in New Jersey as that state’s first Republican governor since Christie Todd Whitman was elected in 1997. But the Christie inauguration garnered little attention in the national press, overshadowed by the Massachusetts special election for the late Ted Kennedy’s U.S. Senate seat. Though Chris Christie’s win was seen as a definite possibility throughout last year’s gubernatorial race, Massachusetts state senator Scott Brown’s upset victory over state attorney general Martha Coakley was considered all but impossible just a few weeks ago. Despite these differences, these two Republican wins in solidly blue states share some similarities and offer important lessons for the two parties.
Massachusetts and New Jersey have shared a similar political makeup in recent years. Both are solidly blue states–in 2008, Barack Obama won Massachusetts by 26 points and New Jersey by 15 points. Yet Republicans have seen some success in recent statewide elections in both states. Massachusetts had a Republican governor from 1991 through 2007. But Brown has become the first Republican senator from Massachusetts since 1979, and the first Republican to take the Kennedy seat since 1947.
Brown’s meteoric rise in the polls was due partly to his opponent, who proved to be weak and gaffe-prone, and partly to the fact that he himself was a likable candidate with strong fundraising ability in the waning days of the campaign. But this race was clearly a referendum on Obama policies, not least of which healthcare and cap-and-trade. How should Democrats respond in order to reduce losses in a year where national issues will dominate, and how can Republicans continue the momentum they have enjoyed since November?
Lesson Number One for Democrats going into this fall’s midterm elections should be to minimize the attention paid to national issues. Candidates should not invite Barack Obama to campaign for them unless they want to nationalize their election. Barack Obama made the same mistake in Massachusetts that he did in New Jersey — his decision to campaign personally for Jon Corzine and Martha Coakley enabled his critics to tie the losses to the declining popularity of the President and his policies. (New Jersey, in particular, was an election based on state and local issues before Obama’s decision to appear on Corzine’s behalf.) Obama’s job approval in Massachusetts has fallen below 50 percent in a handful of polls. If Obama cannot keep the support of a majority in one of the country’s bluest states, his popularity in any state could be in jeopardy. In many states now, an Obama appearance could do more harm than good to a Democratic candidate in a gubernatorial or congressional race, when it could have been an unmitigated benefit just one year ago.
The second lesson for Democrats is to embrace bipartisanship. As Michael Barone wrote in the Washington Examiner this past weekend, the 60-seat Democratic supermajority enabled Democrats to push healthcare reform without Republican support. But now one vote short of cloture, Democrats will need to reexamine their strategy in order to capture the support of some Republicans. The outcome of this November’s election will likely depend on whether Democrats choose to adopt a more bipartisan strategy in the next few months.
As for Republicans, the lessons are more complicated. Though Chris Christie and Scott Brown were victorious, their elections were more referendums on the party in power rather than a public embrace of the GOP. Democratic support among voters is declining, but this decline is not being matched by an uptick in Republican support; anti-incumbency and disillusionment with politics as usual currently reign supreme. With the Republican brand not resonating with voters, Republicans need to offer candidates such as Christie and Brown: fiscally responsible, with a diminished emphasis on social issues.
Though Brown’s detractors tried to tie him to the far right, his policy stances are moderate in many cases. He opposes partial-birth abortion, but is otherwise pro-choice. He also opposes a federal marriage amendment. Tea Party groups endorsed Brown, smartly recognizing their shared views on tax issues and forgiving any differences on social issues, which have been on the backburner for this election. This is the correct approach for Tea Party groups, which have been subject to whispers of internal division of late. Conciliation while maintaining core principles is not only possible, but it also provides the most likely path to victory.
Republican candidates would also be smart to distinguish themselves from national-level Republicans. Christie did not ask Sarah Palin to appear on his behalf in New Jersey. Palin also kept a low profile during the Massachusetts campaign. On an Election Night appearance on Fox News, she said of Brown’s campaign: “I so respected that he didn’t call in a whole lot of outsiders asking them to come do the bidding for him. He did this himself.” Exactly right — with the Republican brand still weak in voters’ minds, it will be better for Republican candidates this fall to decline the involvement of well-known GOP politicos and instead show an independent streak.
Though Republicans have found success in recent elections, they are still a long way from restoring the Republican name among American voters. The events of January 19–the inauguration of Governor Chris Christie in blue New Jersey, and the election of Senator Scott Brown in even-bluer Massachusetts–are a good place to start looking for lessons.
Jennifer Marsico is a research assistant at AEI.
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