Jim Gilmore’s 2013 autopsy and the future of Republican outreach

Anthony Rek LeCounte Political Commentator
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Virginia is in many ways fumbling at crossroads. The Commonwealth is at once a Southern state and a Mid-Atlantic haven for the geographically transient and government-employed or -affiliated. It is in places traditional and cosmopolitan. It is the suburban sprawl of Arlington and Fairfax and the timeless traditionalism of Richmond and the Shenandoah. It is, in short, a useful bellwether of the New South that will inform how Republicans and Democrats will and should adapt to the evolving dynamics of 21st Century politics throughout America.

With all this in mind, I spent the evening after polls closed in the Old Dominion on Election Day 2013 interviewing the 68th Governor of Virginia, Jim Gilmore. A Richmond native with an easygoing drawl, Gilmore is in many ways a living commitment to the project of an inclusive GOP. For starters, he carried notoriously liberal Northern Virginia in his 1997 gubernatorial election. He even authored an article earlier this year in the Richmond Free Press, the newspaper of Richmond’s African-American community, to advise today’s Republicans on ways to reach traditionally leery demographics with a conservative message.

In watching Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli lose the governor’s mansion to a spectacularly flawed Beltway moneyman who had never held elected office, Gilmore reflected on how far the Republican Party of Virginia had fallen from its not-so-long-ago reputation as a source of pragmatic and inclusive problem-solvers. It was abundantly clear than in several corners, his call for serious conservative outreach to a broader set of voters was not heeded.

It should be noted that, contrary to popular belief, the available evidence indicates that Libertarian Party candidate Robert Sarvis turned out not to be a spoiler for Republicans after all. In fact, Sarvis voters slightly inflated Republican turnout without doing much for Democrats. Accordingly, if Mark Obenshain — who took pains to distance himself from the rest of the GOP ticket — manages to hold onto his narrow lead for attorney general and become the only Republican elected statewide, he should probably thank Sarvis supporters for pushing him past the post.

Cuccinelli, among other problems, developed a poignant reputation for extremism on social issues, particularly abortion and gay rights, which he was unable or unwilling to shake. This problem was compounded and arguably solidified when Virginia Republican leaders propelled E. W. Jackson onto the ticket over the more suburban-friendly Pete Snyder. Whereas the latter might have counterbalanced Cuccinelli’s weaknesses among moderates and swing voters, the former served to accentuate them and thereby drag down the entire GOP ticket. If Obenshain is unable to hang onto his razor-thin lead in the race for attorney general, Republicans will be shut out of statewide office in Virginia for the first time in four decades.

Yet in 1997, the Virginia GOP was vibrant and competitive. Not only did Gilmore, a former attorney general, best then-Lieutenant Governor Don Beyer in the voter-rich metropolitan areas of Northern Virginia, Richmond, and Hampton Roads — as Bob McDonnell would do to Creigh Deeds a dozen years later — but so did his running mates. Republican John H. Hager (who would later share a grandchild with George W. Bush) was elected lieutenant governor over L.F. Payne, Jr. by winning all three regions, and Republican Mark L. Earley trounced Democrat William D. Dolan III in the race for attorney general, losing only a few counties in the mountains, the rural tidewater, and Arlington. It was the first time in Virginia history that Republicans ever won control of all three offices.

As Gilmore recalls, the name of the game that cycle was political innovation. Coming on the heels of a general election in which Bill Clinton (who campaigned for the Democrat) and Al Gore won a wall of electoral votes from Minnesota to Louisiana, the Republican was determined to compete in minority communities, urban areas, and wherever else Democrats were expected to have the advantage. But then, as today, he understood that in order to be competitive he would need to build and maintain a robust, substantive engagement with these voters. In other words, it would not be enough to make an eleventh-hour plea for minority votes; the tactic that would fail Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown in 2012, as it has many a politician who mistakes wide swaths of voters for cheap dates. To win, Republicans had to actually listen to them, articulate compelling solutions to their concerns, and then fight for those solutions.

For Gilmore, this came in the form of identifying and emphasizing the elements of conservative governance that held particular appeal to new demographics. He built a lead in the suburbs by proposing to end a highly unpopular tax on automobiles. Determined to compete for urban voters like those he grew up with in Richmond, Gilmore took his campaign into the inner cities by focusing on one of their principle interests: education. He promised 4,000 new teachers and to reduce class sizes for all families if elected.

As a measure of Gilmore’s campaign successes, former Democratic Governor Douglas Wilder — then the only black governor elected in any state — declined to endorse his own lieutenant governor against the Republican. Less than two weeks before the election, pollsters predicted that Gilmore would get unusually high support from black voters, despite three decades of at least 94 percent black support for Democratic governors. While the polls gave him a five-point lead, Gilmore ultimately won by 13 points.

In keeping his promises after his inauguration, Gilmore pushed the car tax cut through the then-Democratic legislature in a way designed to minimize budgetary disruption. When 9/11 and a recession slowed economic growth in the Commonwealth, the governor opted to cut spending on everything but education, rather than renege on his tax promise. In keeping with his commitment to conservative principles and focus on a broader array of constituents, Gilmore fought to reduce the costs of college tuition (a strong concern for suburban voters), lower the achievement gap between white and minority students, and increase funding to historically black universities.

There are similar patterns of innovation among promising conservatives like Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey. Paul’s clumsy attempt to lecture black students on civil rights history at Howard University was widely panned as a textbook example of how not to talk to voters — a point Gilmore had specifically made in his outreach article. But to Paul’s credit, the resilient Southern doctor persisted in his attempts to understand issues of importance to minority voters and has pushed for policy changes that will demonstrably impact many of their communities.

These include sentencing reform and ending the war on drugs, which contribute to disproportionately high numbers of incarcerated black and Hispanic men — a condition with lasting socioeconomic effects on individuals and families. There is also the matter of restoring voting rights to ex-felons (a measure the current Virginia Republican governor supports), which could serve as part of a more productive approach of reintegrating ex-convicts into lawful society and thus combatting the haunting problem of recidivism. Moreover, by emerging as a strident champion of civil liberties, Paul is even courting the begrudging respect of young liberals disillusioned with President Obama’s policy continuity with President Bush on national security matters.

Whereas Cuccinelli’s support came primarily from the Old Dominion’s conservative base, Christie’s supporters touted his work on education reform (like Gilmore), mandatory drug treatment for nonviolent offenders (think Paul), and a concerted effort to build close partnerships with local officials in New Jersey to amass minority support well before the election.

Critically, Christie neither assumed nor relied on a whiter and older electorate for his victory. Instead, he committed to the task of competing in the younger, browner, more immigrant-friendly America of today (in both Virginia and Jersey) and tomorrow. New Jersey’s governor was reelected with the largest Republican share of the minority vote in decades. Whereas John McCain and Mitt Romney hemorrhaged Latino support, Gov. Christie exceeded even the successes of Texans Rick Perry and George W. Bush by securing roughly half of the Latino vote, along with 21 percent of the black vote, against his Democratic challenger in a blue state.

To be sure, none of this should be taken as a wholesale endorsement of Christie or Paul’s approaches. Sen. Paul has not yet proven himself to be a candidate who can translate theoretical appeal with Democrat-leaning voters into actual results. So far, none of his policy goals have been signed into law, and it is not clear what, if any, legislative success the Kentuckian will have in Congress. But he is well on his way, and the GOP would do well to take notice, as Democrat Ron Wyden already has.

Gov. Christie is not yet forgiven for the contemptible aspersions he cast against conservatives objecting to the morass of pork in the Sandy relief bill (and lying about it later). Critics also see solipsism in Christie’s politics, as evidenced by his anemic coattails despite a landslide win, his undercutting Romney at the 2012 Republican convention and in the last weeks before the election, and his refusal to campaign with Cuccinelli this cycle. Still, the New Jersey Republican has attempted to govern inclusively and vigorously as a conservative in a blue state, and he has proven that he can get results.

Among Christie’s few coattails this year was Don Guardian, the upset mayor-elect of heavily Democratic Atlantic City who will be their first gay mayor ever and the first Republican to hold the office since the town’s first black Mayor James Usry left in 1990. In the mold of Christie — with whom vanquished Democratic Mayor Lorenzo Langford had a notoriously stormy relationship — Guardian won by aggressively courting unlikely voters, including city’s often overlooked Asian communities.

Incidentally, the diverse population of Asian voters is yet another area where Republicans have been hemorrhaging support since the Gilmore years. Whereas George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole won among these voters in the 90s, Democrats have steadily commanded Asian support since 2000, culminating with Barack Obama’s 50-point advantage over Mitt Romney. While the reasons for this national shift are certainly legion, it cannot be overlooked that, from an economic standpoint, Asians are seemingly ideal Republicans. But Asians are also disproportionately involved with math and science, about which Lloyd Green of the first Bush administration makes the following observation in the Daily Beast:

“What’s more, Asian-American students tend to concentrate in the STEM jobs — sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics — that are crucial to our economy. Thus, in a sense, Asian-Americans are not just another ethnic group waiting for a politician to march in a parade, eat some exotic food, and then announce a community grant or shill for votes. Rather, they are also a subset of high-tech America, and one thing is clear: high-tech America is not in love with the Republican Party.

In Santa Clara County, California — the heart of Silicon Valley — Obama beat Romney by a 42-point margin. As Nate Silver documented, Obama received approximately $720,000 in contributions from Google employees, while Romney received a paltry $25,000. At Apple, the story was almost the same. Its employees gave more than nine out of every 10 campaign dollars they contributed to the president.

And it is not just a matter of votes or money. It is also a matter of campaign skills. High-tech America’s aversion to the Republican Party is wreaking havoc with mechanics of national Republican campaigns. A recent Sunday New York Times Magazine cover story highlighted the Republicans’ huge campaign-technology deficit and described at length how the party’s inability to connect with tech-savvy graduates is damaging its competitiveness. In that context, the Election Day epic failure of Romney’s ORCA operation is just another symptom of what is ailing the GOP.”

The Republican outreach we need extends beyond the vital proposals for better job security and economic growth — young people and non-Asian minorities are still under- or unemployed — and reducing the cost of college education to policy areas not yet strongly defined by or identified with either party.

In moving forward, Republicans must become the party of better technological and digital policy and a robust science-affirming platform. Not only will this help gain the support of Asian Americans, it will also play well with increasingly tech-savvy millennials, who tend to caricature the GOP as the party of creationism, sexual authoritarianism, and climate-change denial. If nothing else, narrowing the digital gap will go a long way to identifying and getting out sympathetic voters, which will be key to conservatives in an era where Democrats are beginning to play as well in the suburbs as in the cities.

As Republicans move on from yet another disappointing election cycle into preparation for next year in the majority, Gov. Gilmore’s overarching advice is simple: Listen.

“If you don’t know, guess what? They will tell you,” he says of the political priorities and interests of minorities, women, gays, young people, urbanites, and immigrants who comprise what liberals call “the coalition of the ascendant” that are widely assumed to lean away from the right. The Republican National Committee’s infamous 2012 autopsy does well to advocate greater outreach, Gilmore argues, but it never quite takes the next step of addressing the concerns of the communities it name-checks.

It’s not enough just to show up and expect an audience or support, nor can we attempt to bribe interest groups or factions as many do on the left. As Gilmore puts it succinctly, pandering doesn’t work. Voters will see it for what it is, and they won’t respect the effort (not to mention,we will never play that game as well as the Democrats). Republicans will have to listen to the concerns of a broader range of Americans and sustain a conversation about how conservative governance can meet those concerns and improve those voters’ quality of life in ways that matter to them.

For that, conservatives will have to move beyond the blame game in Virginia and elsewhere and take the fight to the inner cities, college campuses, immigrant neighborhoods, mosques, bookstores, and even the Acela Corridor to sell an agenda that responds to people who never believed we were listening.

And then we will have to deliver.