Needless to say, 2008 was not a good year for Republicans. Our nation faced major financial and energy crises brought on by direct actions and inactions of Democrats in Congress. Not only did Republicans fail to capitalize on these issues, but we were defeated at nearly every level. It is easy to try to lay the blame on the unpopularity of George Bush, or an ineffective campaign by John McCain or on a media bias. However, if we do not identify and address the root causes of our resounding defeat this year, we are destined to experience further political losses in the future.
Republicans have lost significant ground over the past four years. All areas of political advantage have suffered, including: lack of a positive message that resonates with people; lack of highly qualified, articulate candidates that are backed by the party at all levels; the need to repair the Republican brand which has been severely damaged; poor communication at all levels of the party; lack of leadership from the top – down; the need to appeal to the young generation; and the need to increase Republican voter registration.
Democrats had a full court press of registration while Republicans felt it was somebody else’s job. We must also increase our fund raising efforts at all levels, as well as increase grass-roots community involvement. Because Democrats have a media advantage, we must find alternative and more creative ways to get out our message.
I believe that to regain a majority in the state of Colorado, we need to address these fundamental systemic root causes of a weakened Republican party. Colorado is a center-right state, and we can regain majorities at the state and federal levels by articulating consistent and inspirational messages.
By turning around each of the shortcomings that I observed as a congressional candidate this year, we come up with the following 9-point agenda for a better showing next time.
1. Articulate a Positive Message
We need to articulate a positive message based upon conservative principals and values. People want to be inspired to vote for a candidate, not against the opponent. We must convey a positive message, based on the greatness of America. Ronald Reagan and the ’94 Republican revolution were so successful because we communicated a positive message from the top down. We must communicate that message always, even if it is not articulated from the top.
The fundamental messages that strike a chord with the people include: Personal accountability, freedoms and opportunities, as well as national security. It is acceptable to demonstrate contrast with the Democrats, but primarily negative campaigns never work. While trying to appeal to unaffiliated voters it is acceptable to present contrast, but it should be presented in a non-confrontational manner.
2. Candidate Development
People want to find reasons to vote for candidates, or to join a party. We must develop inspirational candidates and party leaders who think for themselves and are not partisan parrots. We must develop candidates at every level and compete in every race in every district. The Democrats have been very successful with their 64 county approach in Colorado, while Republicans have only tried to maintain status quo.
We cannot grow as a party or as a philosophy with a hunker-down mentality. We must adopt a Fifty-State approach nationally and a 64 county approach in Colorado. State wide races can be won by being competitive in Democratic strongholds. Ignoring these districts will further widen the divide and make is harder to ever change the tide. I believe this in one of the major contributory factors in Republican losses this year.
Unaffiliated voters do not want to be represented by partisan hacks. They want independent thinkers who will stand up for what they believe in. Most voters want the same opportunities and freedoms that make America great. If we communicate the conservative principles that provide the foundation of our decisions, Republicans will attract independents and even Democrats to their side.
Conservatism did not fail us this year, our abandonment of fiscal responsibility and our lack of inspirational leadership failed us. This is demonstrated by the fact that Obama ran on a platform of tax cuts and eliminating wasteful government agencies. Even though Obama lacked specifics, and was not challenged by the media, his message resonated better than McCain’s message.
3. Intra-Party Communications
We have had poor intra-party communications at all levels. Infighting and posturing have diverted energy that should be used to get our message out. I believe we must generate Candidate Handbooks and lessons learned manuals at all levels: Handbooks to include fund-raising ideas, lessons learned, campaigning “dos and don’ts” etc... These handbooks must cover all levels of party organization including State Party, county, and local republican clubs as well as candidates and candidate committees.
We must also collect and share available data about precincts, lists of voters and voting history. Gathering statistical data on registration is a key component in obtaining metrics by which we can gage our progress and focus in on programs that work. The current voter registration data and information process has been too cumbersome and the availability of accurate data has been lacking.
Additionally, Republican organizations must make more effective use of websites, blogs and email blasts. We are not making effective use of the internet for communication, and this must be addressed.
4. Party Leadership
I believe that with several exceptions, our party’s leadership has not adequately supported candidates, state and local organizations. Along with the lack of a strong, consistent and positive message, our national leadership seemed resigned to defeat this year and hoarded resources to a few targeted races. Leadership at the county level must be strengthened. Party leadership must be enforced with defined roles and responsibilities for leadership positions at all levels. We cannot tolerate complacent or indifferent performance from our party leaders. If they do not perform, they should be replaced.
5. Youth Movement
We need to plant seeds and take our message directly to the youth of America through the means they communicate, with a message that resonates with them. Several methods of effective communication are Facebook communication networks, internet sights & blogs, Young Republican and College Republican organizations. I believe county level organizations should subsidize and encourage local youth groups. I recommend at least 10% of county funds go to youth group organizations, such as Young Republicans. We must also focus on issues which resonate with youth including education, the environment, government fiscal responsibility including long-term social security viability.
6. Voter Registration
We have lost significant ground this year on the voter registration front. We must be diligent in our efforts to register as many new voters as possible. To do this we must contact newcomers into the area (County level responsibility). We must also hold registration drives at any public events. We must make people feel welcome and connected to the Republican party. We should find people’s interests and connect with unaffiliated voters to make them realize they identify with the principals of the Republican Party.
7. Fund Raising
Traditionally, Republicans typically held advantages in fund raising. That advantage is gone. We must reignite our find raising efforts at all levels. We focus too much at the top levels and ignore down-ticket candidates. Grass-roots level communication starts at the lower levels and we must support candidates financially to help communicate our message. Further, we must adopt a 64 county approach and support every candidate, every race, every time.
If every registered Republican in a congressional district sent their candidate $10, they would have over $1M to get our message out. This will have a significant affect on raising the tide and making all districts competitive. We must also put pressure on the federal and state levels to adopt this approach. If we had a holistic approach this year, we might be celebrating a McCain victory right now. I also propose adopting a “Change for Change” program that encourages Republicans to start spare-change jars, every two years, tally it up and divide the monies to candidates, with largest apportionment to the top ticket candidates.
8. Community Involvement
The party and all prospective candidates must be continually involved at the community level, and not just in election years. Voters (particularly unaffiliated voters) will vote for candidates they know personally or know of their community involvement. Being active in the community will generate positive press and the voters receive a sense of connectivity with the candidate.
Examples of community level involvement include Rotary Clubs, Optimist Clubs, Schools, PTA, sporting teams, Astronomy Clubs, VFW, Kiwanis etc... I also propose that we hold fund raisers for clubs typically not associated with Republican organizations (for instance environmental causes). Community level activists must also promote national level candidates. As an example, at every town parade I attended this year had dozens of Obama supporters, and no organized McCain supporters. There were people who would carry a McCain sign, but there was no organized effort to show support for the top of our ticket.
9. Communication Methods
We must use all available communication avenues to get our message out. We are the party of ideas, we must articulate those ideas any opportunity we can. Communication venues include: Websites, Blogs, Facebook networks, Yahoo groups, Talk radio, Letters to the editor, Community events and Conventional media (newspapers, TV etc...). There is no debate that most conventional media outlets favor Democrat principles and candidates. It serves no purpose to whine or lament this reality. We must increase our efforts to counter it. With new communication and information venues we can effectively get our message out.
The Republican Party is the party of ideas and we can regain a majority in Colorado by communicating those ideas in a clear, consistent and positive manner. A clear majority of people identify with our message, so we must be confident and consistent in connecting with people about our message. We must adopt a 64 county approach in Colorado (50 State nationally). We must compete in every race and support our candidates, even in Democrat strongholds. We must develop strong community involved candidates that can effectively articulate our message. Strong party leadership with clearly defined roles and responsibilities will also increase our effectiveness and ability to communicate within the party. We must take advantage of new media communication methods and appeal to a new generation of voters.
I believe that by addressing these systemic issues, we can turn the tide of the political winds, and regain a majority at the state and federal levels, but it will take diligence and determination.
Scott Starin lives in Lafayette and works in the aerospace industry. He was the 2008 Republican nominee for Congress in Colorado's 2nd District.