Really want to stop the next Todd Akin?: Don’t attack conservative candidates, train them

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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By now, you’ve read the  New York Times story about a group given the Orwellian name, “Conservative Victory Project.” In short, this is an effort to prevent Republican losses by limiting the number of fringe candidates who win Republican nominations.

The problem, of course, is who decides? At fist blush, establishment candidates Charlie Crist and David Dewhurst probably both seemed like more “electable” choices than the alternatives. Every effort to block a Todd Akin (who, by the way, wasn’t the “tea party’ candidate — nor was he endorsed by groups like The Club for Growth), might inadvertently take out a Marco Rubio.

Aside from the unintended consequences (such as possibly strangling the future of the Republican Party in his crib), my concern is that Rove and his establishment allies are taking a confrontational approach to a problem that could instead by solved by working together with conservative outside groups.

Instead of wasting millions of dollars in internecine squabbles — and meddling in the primary process — why not try working together?

In my estimation, in many cases, the problem isn’t about ideology — but instead, a lack of sophistication.

Writing about Mourdock’s tendency to talk too much, the Washington Post’s Melinda Henneberger observed, “one thing I appreciate about him — and was pretty sure would get him into trouble — is that he will answer any question he’s asked, directly, fully, and the first time.”

Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater were both conservatives. But Reagan won in a landslide, while Goldwater got 38 percent of the vote. There were lots of reasons for the disparity, but one of the reasons was that Reagan was a great communicator. It’s not that Reagan was more moderate — but that he communicated his conservatism more effectively.

What separates Marco Rubio from others? I would argue, again, that it’s his ability to eloquently sell a conservative vision. He’s a natural, but we can all become better communicators by studying the greats.

Would Mourdock and Akin have benefited from better communications training? My guess is that it might have made a huge difference.

So here’s my proposal: What if — in addition to insisting candidates sign pledges and pass other litmus tests — outside groups also mandated that before receiving financial support, a candidate must also attend campaign training?

This can make a huge difference. Candidates running for Congress in 1994 were greatly aided by training tapes and manuals sent out by Newt Gingrich’s GOPAC in the early 1990s. For four years, I worked at Morton Blackwell’s Leadership Institute, which trains conservatives how to be more effective in the public policy process. They do tremendous work. They even have a TV studio where conservatives can practice debating and answering tough questions before going on TV.

To be sure, not every candidate will be open to this. Some don’t realize that political technology is philosophically neutral. Some mistakenly view selling conservative ideas as selling out. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

Still, instead of making Republican primary campaigns more divisive and expensive, Rove and his team should first attempt to go this route. They should try to enlist other conservative outside groups to join in the effort. And even if these groups won’t join in on the effort, before targeting conservative candidates for defeat, the Conservative Victory Project should offer these candidates a chance to attend a training seminar.

Matt K. Lewis