01.20.10

The GOP's New Roadmap

The secret to Scott Brown’s success in Massachusetts was his strong appeal to independent voters—a template for the GOP in 2010, and a Democratic nightmare.

Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts Tuesday tells us a lot about the power of independents and what it takes to win their vote. Despite the media’s focus on the “fringe” elements on the far right and the far left of the ideological spectrum, the vast majority of Americans reside somewhere in the political center. Most people want the same things from Washington: a federal government that is efficient, competent, transparent, and frugal. Unfortunately for the party in power, our leaders in Washington have failed spectacularly on all these fronts.

“But Republicans started it,” liberals will squeal. Fair enough. But Democrats were handed decisive margins of victory in 2006 and 2008 to turn things around, and it appears that voters have run out of patience.

The most interesting thing about Brown’s appeal among Massachusetts independents is that he didn’t back away from the issues that are of the greatest importance to Republicans.

Independents are particularly disillusioned. They were quick to display anxiety about President Obama’s liberal agenda and appetite for spending. After passage of the White House stimulus plan, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) warned that a kind of “generational theft” was under way. That registered with independents. And their anxiety about the Democratic administration only snowballed from there.

Independents tend to have a lower tolerance than partisans for government shenanigans. They’ve watched the bribery and back-room dealing on health-care legislation in abject horror.

Obama’s inability to call “time out” on the Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill has taken a toll on the political health of the White House. He had a window several months ago to halt negotiations and demand that integrity and transparency be returned to the legislative process—a promise he campaigned on in his historic run for the White House. These missed opportunities have not gone unnoticed. In the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, President Obama’s approval rating among independents is 41 percent, down from 52 percent on Election Day in 2008. And while independent voters are not the squeaky wheels in our political system, their mood swings have serious consequences.

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In November, independents in New Jersey sided with Republican Chris Christie 58 percent to 31 percent, helping pave the way for his stunning upset in the governor’s race in this deep blue state. In Virginia, a state Obama turned blue in 2008, Republican Bob McDonnell carried independents by a margin of 65-34 percent en route to victory in that state’s governor’s race. And Tuesday night, independents in Massachusetts—who make up more than half of the electorate—decided that the most qualified candidate to succeed Ted Kennedy was Scott Brown, the “independent-minded Republican” in the race.

Scott Brown won for a variety of reasons. He is scrappy, accessible, humble and hard-working. The pickup truck helped. So did his young, energetic daughters. But the most interesting thing about Brown’s appeal among Massachusetts independents is that he didn’t back away from the issues that are of the greatest importance to Republicans. With confidence and without alienating the political center, Brown ran as the 41st vote against Obama’s agenda. He wasn’t intimidated or distracted by the white noise that emanates from Washington about how Republicans can’t simply run “against” something; they need to be “for” something. Scott Brown proved all the wise men (and women) wrong on that front by running as “41.” And he was for the important things: jobs, tax cuts, less government, and a strong military.

Brown also spoke in stark terms about terror. The wounds of 9/11 run deep in Massachusetts. Two of the planes took off from Logan International that day. Brown ran as an unapologetic supporter of waterboarding and an opponent of granting rights and privileges to enemies during wartime. Massachusetts’ voters went with him.

Brown did something else that’s important. He allowed voters to like Obama. For Republicans to win in November, they will have to acknowledge the personal appeal of both President and Mrs. Obama. Brown described his call from Obama in his victory speech Tuesday night and continued his courtship of the popular president in his news conference Wednesday with an in-depth read-out of the conversation the two men had.

Perhaps the secret of Brown’s appeal to the independent set is the simple fact that he knows who he is; he hasn’t been focus-grouped or scripted or insulated from the people he represents. He put it best when he ended his acceptance speech Tuesday night with this:

“[B]ecause of your independence and your trust, I will hold for a time the seat once filled by patriots from John Quincy Adams to John F. Kennedy and his brother Ted... I’m Scott Brown. I’m from Wrentham. I drive a truck. And I am nobody’s senator but yours.”

Nicolle Wallace served as a senior adviser to the McCain-Palin campaign from May to November 2008. She served President George W. Bush as an assistant to the president and director of communications for the White House, as well as communications director for President Bush's 2004 campaign.