Skip to main content

In elections, GOP gets burned by ... itself

By Errol Louis, Special to CNN
November 6, 2013 -- Updated 1502 GMT (2302 HKT)
Virginia Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe gives a thumbs up to the crowd after speaking on Tuesday, November 5, in Tysons Corner, Virginia. McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chairman, defeated Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli. With all of the vote counted, McAuliffe held a 48%-45% margin over Cuccinelli. Virginia Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe gives a thumbs up to the crowd after speaking on Tuesday, November 5, in Tysons Corner, Virginia. McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chairman, defeated Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli. With all of the vote counted, McAuliffe held a 48%-45% margin over Cuccinelli.
HIDE CAPTION
Virginia governor race
Virginia governor race
Virginia governor race
Virginia governor race
Virginia governor race
Virginia governor race
Virginia governor race
Virginia governor race
Virginia governor race
Virginia governor race
Virginia governor race
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Errol Louis: GOP results -- win in New Jersey, losses in Virginia and New York -- reflect pattern
  • He says red-meat candidates draw big far-right cheers but turn off independent voters
  • He says Chris Christie correctly said that GOP wants to win argument but then loses race
  • Louis: GOP's "to hell with the middle" ideologues may have principles but will lose elections

Editor's note: Errol Louis is the host of "Inside City Hall," a nightly political show on NY1, a New York City all-news channel.

(CNN) -- Results for Republican candidates in the most high-profile 2013 races this year -- a resounding re-election win by Gov. Chris Christie in New Jersey and losses for Virginia governor and New York mayor -- stand as a reminder to party leaders that the civil war in their ranks remains a toxic turnoff to voters.

A pattern has emerged: GOP candidates who wade into the hottest ideological fights -- such as the government shutdown or the attempt to defund Obamacare -- enjoy a burst of publicity and cheers from right-wing think tanks, conservative donors and media celebrities.

But the same rowdy, combative style that delights audiences at tea party rallies tarnishes the party label among independent voters. That makes life politically difficult for middle-of-the-road Republicans.

Errol Louis
Errol Louis

The pattern was on display in the recent races for governor. In Virginia, the GOP candidate, Ken Cuccinelli, narrowly lost a winnable race in no small part due to his longstanding affiliation with the tea party and with attempts to crack down on immigration and drastically limit the availability of abortions.

In a showdown against Terry McAuliffe -- a former Democratic National Committee chairman with close ties to corporate leaders and ex-President Bill Clinton -- Cuccinelli tried to mute or distance himself from past stances on divisive social issues, but the damage was done.

Women, blacks, Latinos, young voters and government workers -- the same coalition that twice delivered Virginia to Barack Obama -- were highly motivated to block Cuccinelli, who closed out the campaign accompanied by tea party heroes such as radio show host Mark Levin and Sen. Rand Paul. McAuliffe, by contrast, toured with Clinton and used his corporate ties to raise $14 million more than Cuccinelli.

Exit polls showed Cuccinelli lost women, blacks and voters under 44. And finally, when totals rolled in from Fairfax County -- home to thousands of federal workers who weren't thrilled by the Republican-led government shutdown -- McAuliffe pulled ahead and won.

On the same day, Republican Christie showed how a different path could lead to victory. Eschewing hard-line stances on the government shutdown or immigration reform, he reached out to New Jersey's independents, who outnumber Republicans or Democrats in the Garden State. Christie, who automatically becomes a Republican presidential contender, romped to a victory of historic proportions with a majority of women voters, half the state's Latino voters and 21% of black voters -- groups that are usually reliable parts of the Democratic base.

CNN: McAuliffe wins in Virginia
Breaking down McAuliffe's Virginia win
Christie aims to make history in N.J.
Gingrich: McAuliffe has 'Clinton machine'

In the hours before his victory, Christie explained to CNN's Jake Tapper why his efforts should be a model for Republicans. "I think the party cares more about winning the argument than winning the election, and if you don't win elections, you can't govern," he said in words that should be plastered on the door of every state Republican headquarters.

The battle between Republican factions is deep-seated: Sociologist Robert Putnam tellingly described it as a fight between country-club and Sunday school Republicans. The country clubbers, according to Putnam, are mainstream party members concerned about business development and low taxes, while the Sunday schoolers care passionately about social issues such as abortion.

The glue that long held the coalition together -- common opposition to abortion and homosexuality -- has weakened in recent years. A number of Republicans -- looking at polling and voter data -- have become supporters of same-sex marriage and abortion rights.

Thoughtful young conservatives such as Ryan Sager and Margaret Hoover have been pointing out for years that the party's future requires moderating its thinking on same-sex marriage and abortion to keep the party relevant to young, live-and-let-live libertarian Republicans.

Now a more aggressive response is coming from a Republican group, Main Street Advocacy, that is running ads attacking ultra-conservatives who keep losing elections -- and backing moderate Republicans against them.

"We want our party back," says the group's founder, former U.S. Rep. Steven LaTourette of Ohio, who left the House after complaining about the polarizing elements in the GOP.

It remains unclear who will win the Republican civil war; not everyone has drawn the same conclusions from this week's elections. Brent Bozell, for example, a nationally respected conservative who runs ForAmerica, an activist group, says the problem in Virginia is that the candidate and party weren't conservative enough.

"The moderate branch of the Republican Party turned its back on Cuccinelli, and that hurt him big time," he told the Atlantic. "Politics is solidifying and mobilizing your base -- and the hell with the middle."

That attitude among many national Republicans -- the hell with the middle -- helped doom the chances of New York mayoral candidate Joe Lhota. As the former deputy mayor under Rudy Giuliani, Lhota tried to run a candidacy similar to Guiliani's -- moderate or liberal on social issues while tough on crime and fiscally conservative.

Lhota, in fact, opposed the government shutdown and is pro-same-sex marriage and pro-abortion rights. But voters never heard that message: At every turn, Lhota's Democratic rival, Bill de Blasio, simply associated him with tea party Republicans.

In one of their final debates, Lhota turned to de Blasio in exasperation. "Where I don't agree with the national Republican Party is long and hard," he said. "Do not lump me with the national Republicans. It's unbecoming."

The Republican civil war, decades in the making, will come to a head in the next 36 months, as we begin the run-up to the next presidential election. Expect Christie and other moderate candidates to point to Virginia, New York and other losses as missed opportunities -- the price for choosing to win arguments instead of elections. And expect the tea party to respond that pursuing politics without principles is no way to lead a country.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Errol Louis.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1819 GMT (0219 HKT)
As a woman whose parents had cancer, I have quite a few things to say about dying with dignity.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1304 GMT (2104 HKT)
David Gergen says he'll have a special eye on a few particular races in Tuesday's midterms that may tell us about our long-term future.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1452 GMT (2252 HKT)
What's behind the uptick in clown sightings? And why the fascination with them? It could be about the economy.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1301 GMT (2101 HKT)
Midterm elections don't usually have the same excitement as presidential elections. That should change, writes Sally Kohn.
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Mike Downey says the Giants and the Royals both lived through long title droughts. What teams are waiting for a win?
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 1832 GMT (0232 HKT)
Mel Robbins says if a man wants to talk to a woman on the street, he should follow 3 basic rules.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2103 GMT (0503 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say more terrorism plots are disrupted by families than by NSA surveillance.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2125 GMT (0525 HKT)
Time magazine has clearly kicked up a hornet's nest with its downright insulting cover headlined "Rotten Apples," says Donna Brazile.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
Leroy Chiao says the failure of the launch is painful but won't stop the trend toward commercializing space.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Timothy Stanley: Though Jeb Bush has something to offer, another Bush-Clinton race would be a step backward.
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 0032 GMT (0832 HKT)
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
ADVERTISEMENT