Message to Republican candidates: Keep it local

Liz Mair President, Mair Strategies LLC
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Last week, Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul crossed the nation’s political radar as a result of comments made by him and heavily publicized in the national media regarding his views on the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Immediately following Paul’s primary win on Tuesday, national-level scrutiny of remarks he made to the Louisville Courier-Journal on the subject had begun; subsequently, he went on Rachel Maddow’s show to discuss the topic further; Paul was also slated to appear on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday, an appearance his campaign ultimately canceled.

Depending on whom you ask, the whole episode has been enlightening, painful, overblown, underplayed or a combination of one or more of those. What is clear, however, is that it has served to further underline a critical lesson that all Republicans who are not a shoo-in for election this fall must learn, and learn now: Focus on your state or district, and nationalize your race at your peril.

This is a lesson that, to be fair, may play off one of the better-known catchphrases that politicians should be familiar with: All politics is local. But somehow, it seems to be one that some of the most attention-grabbing figures who have recently run and who are currently running for national-level office have forgotten, to their detriment. The time for that to be reversed is now.

Last year, Doug Hoffman ran in the special election in New York’s 23rd congressional district, a longtime Republican district. In many ways the original Tea Party candidate, Hoffman had attracted widespread, national-level interest as a result of his issue positions that stood in stark contrast to those of the liberal Republican nominee, Dede Scozzafava, and the Democrat, Bill Owens. His candidacy struck many supportive, New York-local observers as primarily focused on countering President Obama and Nancy Pelosi, and only secondarily on representing the district. Tellingly, Hoffman’s spokesman Rob Ryan was quoted in October last year as saying, “This election is going to be a referendum on two things… First, it’s going to be a referendum on the first 10 months of the Obama administration. And second, it’s going to be a referendum on the future of the Republican Party.” Hoffman’s home base of Lake Placid was not in the 23rd district; persistent complaints arose from both friendly and hostile forces that Hoffman proved unfamiliar with district issues on the stump and in editorial board meetings.

Undoubtedly, this contributed to a result that was less than optimal for conservatives, including Hoffman himself, on the night: He lost. Now, Hoffman is running again, with Tea Party support, while Matt Doheny, who hails from Watertown (which is in the 23rd district), has, perhaps unsurprisingly, garnered the support of local Republican leaders. Still, Hoffman has the opportunity to change course.<!–nextpage–>

Republican Tim Burns, who ran in the Pennsylvania 12th district special election held last Tuesday, offers another case—albeit one that is less attention-grabbing, but still worthy of a mention because of the high hopes that Republicans, both nationally and in Pennsylvania, had that he would succeed in capturing the seat formerly held by recently-deceased Rep. Jack Murtha. Matched up against Mark Critz, Murtha’s onetime Director of Economic Development, Burns ran as an “outsider,” painting Critz as part and parcel of unpopular Washington, and again, focusing on national level issues and personalities. In an interview with Sean Hannity, Burns told him “You know, people are tired of Washington. They are tired of the Obama-Pelosi agenda.” Undoubtedly, to a large extent, that was so: Critz positioned himself in opposition to Democratic health care reform, and (like his old boss) to the right of most national Democrats on certain social issues.

However, Burns’ conclusion that voters in his district were “willing to do whatever they have to do in order to, you know, slow [the Democratic agenda] down and hopefully put a stop to it here in November” ultimately proved faulty: Critz won, and Burns lost—53-to-45 percent. Critz’s positioning as something other than a San Francisco liberal almost certainly was a part of that, as was the Pennsylvania Senate Democratic primary also taking place the same day, but neither likely tells the whole story as to why that outcome arose: Voters in this district, in a heavily anti-incumbent, anti-establishment year, embraced a candidate who positively ran on his credentials as an insider wheeler-dealer, and his biography as the man who brought all that money back to Johnstown. Anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist said, in summarizing what happened: “This is the one district that has real financial problems and voters who still think they’re subsisting on earmarks.” Karin Johanson, former DCCC executive director, put it slightly differently: “Democrats, and new Congressman Mark Critz, won by using a believable economic message that fit this district and this moment. He came across to voters as local… Burns ran a nationalized campaign featuring Speaker Pelosi and President Obama in nearly every ad. He could have been running from anywhere. It didn’t work in this district; Republicans have to ask themselves where that kind of campaign is going to work.” The good news is, Burns gets to have another go at it this November; maybe this time, he will localize further.

That is precisely what Paul, for his part, looks set to do from here on out. Following earlier advice offered by Joe Scarborough that he stay off of TV, and focus his campaigning on Kentucky exclusively, sources told Politico’s Mike Allen last week that he would be doing just that and had no further national interviews planned for the foreseeable future. That is an approach that need not be precisely mimicked by other candidates not suffering in the wake of multiple days of heavy national press attention surrounding specific remarks, but it is one worth following as a 75 percent rule, at least.

Ultimately, the unpopularity of the Obama-Reid-Pelosi agenda has prompted many to consider public service and run for office, and that is a positive development that should be touted and encouraged. Ultimately, Democratic legislation like health care reform and the stimulus that is deeply unpopular with conservatives does have local implications and effects, which should be discussed. Ultimately, this is an anti-incumbent year, and voters are interested in fresh faces who do not have a career history of running for, and serving, in office.

But congressional and senatorial candidates must remember, they are not running for President or party leader, and Barack Obama’s name is not on the ballot—however much they think that would benefit them. If they want to win, Republican challengers and those vying for open seats must remember who their actual opponent is—and make their campaigns and policies relevant to local voters. Otherwise, they run a significant risk of underperforming in November, and matching, as opposed to exceeding, expectations.

Liz Mair is Vice President of Hynes Communications and served as the RNC’s Online Communications Director in 2008. Her clients include Gov. Tim Pawlenty and California Senate candidate Carly Fiorina, as well as various trade associations and Fortune 500 companies.