Sunday, November 8, 2009

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele is working behind the scenes to unify state GOP leaders around an anti-spending, small-government theme for the 2010 midterm elections, seeking to shunt family values to second-tier status in pursuit of independent voters whose economic fears cost Democrats in Tuesday’s elections.

Trying to build on victories in the two biggest races, moderate Republican state party chairmen from liberal-leaning blue states said fiscal conservatism would fuel future wins, and that “good candidates” are now eager to run. Even one of the party’s “rock stars,” former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, may be more willing to take the plunge for the New York gubernatorial race next year, New York GOP Chairman Ed Cox told The Washington Times.

“The keys issues are fiscal conservatism” to fight the Democrats’ “huge deficits and spending,” California GOP Chairman Ron Nehring told The Times in a conference call with Mr. Cox and three other state chairmen. “If we stick to that message, we are going to be united.”

The party chairmen said they were encouraged by Mr. Steele to rally around fiscal conservatism more than family values - a move clearly designed to tap “tea party” activist outrage over spending and lock down their support heading into next year’s races.

Mr. Steele and other party leaders are looking to prevent intraparty battles like the one in upstate New York that cost Republicans a House seat they had held for more than a century.

Massachusetts GOP Chairman Jennifer A. Nassour and GOP leaders see independent, moderate voters who swing elections as ripe and want to ensure the Republican Party is best positioned to pick off their support.

“If I had to focus on the issues we should run on next year,” they would be “spending, jobs, big government and taxes. That’s what people are talking about,” Mrs. Nassour said.

Exit polls showed that independent voters, who powered President Obama and Democrats to victory in 2008, rushed to Republicans on Tuesday by a 2-to-1 margin, delivering a landslide victory to Republican Robert F. McDonnell over Democrat R. Creigh Deeds in Virginia’s gubernatorial contest and upending incumbent New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine. Republican Chris Christie won the solidly blue state.

The nagging question for the party is whether an emphasis on economic issues would spark a backlash from the two conservative groups within the RNC - the Republican National Conservative Caucus and the RNC Steering Committee, both of which have a number of social and religious conservatives.

Mr. Nehring insisted it would not.

“We remain a broad-based party,” he said. “Some deal with spending and tax issues, others foreign-policy and national-security issues.”

He said candidates would be free “to focus on those issues of greatest concern” to their districts or states, including issues that speak to moral and traditional family values. However, abortion - officially opposed in the national GOP’s platform - and same-sex marriage were not mentioned by any of the five state GOP chairmen on the call.

Democrats on Capitol Hill said they don’t see the election as a judgment on President Obama, but vowed to reconnect with the young voters and independents who lifted them in 2008 but didn’t turn out last week.

It was a stark contrast to Mr. Obama’s historic 2008 victory in Republican-leaning Virginia, which was widely heralded as the start of a Democratic wave sweeping the country.

Still, top Democrats pointed to victory in New York’s 23rd District as the story of the off-year election. They are hopeful that the sparring within the GOP in upstate New York is a harbinger of future opportunities for Democrats in otherwise-red districts.

Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat and chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said the GOP was fracturing and predicted it would push candidates too far to the right.

“The tea partiers and the birthers and the far right of their party [are] moving these candidates in that direction, and that’s a lot harder when you have to win in the general election,” he said.

Mr. Nehring disagreed, pointing to a raft of little-known GOP triumphs in state supreme court, mayoral and other races around the country as proof a conservative “wave” is building that Republicans can ride.

“The Republican Party is back,” said Mr. Nehring, whom Mr. Steele earlier this year named to the prestigious position of chairman of the Republican National Committee’s State Chairmen’s Committee. “Talk of needing to rebrand the party has dissipated.”

The Republican leaders discounted the loss in New York’s 23rd District, where fighting between a Conservative Party nominee and a Republican nominee effectively handed the race to Democrat Bill Owens, as an aberration.

They also saw it as a learning opportunity.

The lack of a primary election allowed liberal Republican Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava to get the local party’s nod. But the popularity of rival Doug Hoffman, a Republican running as a Conservative Party candidate, forced her out of the race.

The party chairmen said the Hoffman campaign highlighted the strength of the conservative agenda at the core of the Republican Party.

During the turmoil leading up to the vote Tuesday, the RNC and the National Republican Congressional Committee did not dispatch emissaries to try to persuade Mrs. Scozzafava to endorse Mr. Hoffman or at the very least not endorse Mr. Owens.

Two days before the election, she endorsed the Democrat, and it likely provided him with the winning margin.

Saying he saw no need to try to negotiate a deal with her, Mr. Cox said he talked with Mrs. Scozzafava right after she quit the race and that she was “in tears” and gave him the impression she was a good and loyal Republican.

Ironically, Mr. Cox did foresee bipartisan support possibly brewing for New York’s beleaguered Democratic Gov. David A. Paterson, who is under an ethics cloud and last year proposed 177 new or increased taxes along with $9 billion in spending cuts.

“If he puts forward a good conservative budget … he’s going to have bipartisan support,” Mr. Cox said, noting that Mr. Paterson showed a willingness “to cross party lines.”

Mr. Paterson is considered an extremely weak, vulnerable candidate in 2010, especially against a Republican like Mr. Giuliani. The White House reportedly has sought to sideline the governor in hopes of fielding a stronger candidate, such as New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo.

Connecticut GOP Chairman Christopher C. Healey joined the conference call, but two other scheduled participants were no-shows. Wisconsin GOP Chairman Reince Priebus, whom Mr. Steele appointed as RNC general counsel, was attending an event in his state with former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Mr. Nehring said.

Florida GOP Chairman Jim Greer, whom conservatives on the RNC consider a liberal Republican, was also absent. He’s “at an undisclosed location,” one of the state chairmen quipped.

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