Even though Tuesday’s slate of elections featured far more primaries than actual Republican-vs.-Democrat contests, you could be forgiven for having the impression that Republicans had a terrible night. Despite a variety of factors that made the special election in Pennsylvania’s 12th congressional district not particularly useful as a bellwether, it was touted today as proof that Republicans will be unfortunate underachievers in the fall elections.
In the end, Tuesday’s election results are complex precisely because they all don’t fit into the neat “left-right,” “red-blue” model that these political narratives are so often forced to fit.
Instead, they fall far more in line with a pattern we’ve seen in the polling data for months: Americans don’t trust either party (and by extension, incumbents.) Gallup’s numbers from April were off the charts in terms of dissatisfaction with those currently in Congress; only 28 percent of voters say “most members of Congress deserve to be re-elected,” and fewer than half would re-elect their own member, the low-water mark since 1993.
If you’re in power now, you’re seen as part of the problem, and if you’re part of the problem, how can you be part of the solution?
The lesson from Tuesday’s elections isn’t that Democrats are going to stun us all in November or that Republicans are doomed. In fact, Republicans had 27 percent of their registered voters turn up at the polls to vote, while only 24 percent of Democrats turned out (Democrats had higher raw turnout only because they have a huge registration advantage.) No, the lesson instead is that people still want change and don’t have confidence in either party to do it.
Out with Specter, in with Sestak. Blanche Lincoln is on the ropes in Arkansas. Establishment pick Trey Grayson got trounced by decidedly non-establishment Rand Paul. This is the pattern that interests me from Tuesday.
This is also where Republicans have an opportunity—but only if they choose to take it. Right now, the old playbook is just not working. Ads in PA-12 declared Mark Critz to be a liberal in the mold of Nancy Pelosi—it didn’t work. (The liberal tag is certainly a stretch: Critz is pro-life, pro-gun, and claims he’d have voted against health care reform.)
We became comfortable running campaigns that are supposed to win solely by pointing out how terrible and liberal the other guy is. The problem is that Republicans haven’t done enough to convince voters they should trust us instead.
I’m heartened to hear leaders like Rep. Kevin McCarthy get it right, when he said yesterday that “we have to be for something. We have to lay out our agenda, we have to show a better direction for America and a more prosperous one.”
Make no mistake, Republicans have had some great successes this election cycle. Virginia’s Bob McDonnell didn’t become governor of a blue state, winning independents by huge margins, by luck or chance. It wasn’t about making Creigh Deeds into a villain—and if you recall, Deeds spent a lot of time trying to tear down McDonnell, to no avail. It was about being a “jobs governor.” He was for something. Scott Brown didn’t win by tearing down Martha Coakley, he won by being the better candidate with the better ideas.
The electorate right now doesn’t like the direction the country is heading. Frustration over the stagnant unemployment rate, skyrocketing deficits and a widely disliked health care bill have all set the stage for a rough year for Democrats. If Republicans continue on their current course, I’ll bet they pick up seats in November out of sheer momentum from historical trends.
But the opportunity is there to make this election big—really big. Big elections are usually based around big ideas. It is becoming increasingly clear that Americans are thirsty for a viable, credible alternative to the status quo.
Republicans can content themselves with a handful of easy wins in November, or they can capitalize on the current political environment to do something truly extraordinary. I certainly hope they choose the latter.
Kristen Soltis is the Director of Policy Research at The Winston Group, a Washington, D.C.-based strategic consulting and opinion research firm. Soltis is a contributor at The Huffington Post, Pollster.com and The Next Right and has also provided political commentary for The American Spectator, BBC Radio and Ireland’s RTE.