The election results from Tuesday night provide clear lessons for both parties—lessons that at this point neither party has fully integrated or accepted.
For the Democrats, the message is clear: the only way to stave off the potentially enormous defeat that recent polls suggest is possible is by taking two specific steps. First, to the extent possible, Democratic candidates need to do what Joe Sestak did in Pennsylvania, and what Bill Halter did in Arkansas: run against Washington, against the congressional leadership, and indeed against the entire establishment.
Absent a new Contract With America emphasizing less spending and taxation, and tax incentives to stimulate the economy, the GOP will not fully be able to take advantage of an electorate that is desperate for change.
Second, to fully take advantage of the sour and cynical public mood Democrats must move decisively to the right, clearly and unabashedly, as Mark Critz did in winning a surprising 10-point victory in Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional district. Critz made it clear in his special election victory that he was no liberal. He underscored that he was anti-abortion, anti-gun, and anti-Obamacare. The core message of the Critz campaign was that he was independent from President Obama, and had a distinctive agenda that was fiscally and socially conservative.
Put simply, the Critz victory shows that the only way the Democrats can win is by distancing themselves totally and irrevocably from the big government agenda of President Obama and the congressional Democrats, that polls show has been clearly been rejected by the American people.
The great strength that the Democrats have going into the fall campaign is that the Republicans at this point are offering no clear message and no clear agenda. Republican Tim Burns in Pennsylvania's 12th district sought to position himself as the anti-Obama candidate, but in the absence of any positive identification for the Republican brand or for Burns personally, it was simply impossible for him to succeed. To be sure, his substantial defeat was due in part to structural reasons relating to turnout in the Democratic and Republican primary. But that alone does not explain his sizable deficit Tuesday night.
The big winner on Tuesday was Kentucky Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul. And while many on the left have demonized the Tea Party movement that he championed, the Tea Party actually offers an authentic and clear direction for candidates to take—that is, embracing reduced spending and taxation, reducing the size of government, and returning to core principles. The Paul victory—winning almost 60% of the vote against Trey Grayson, the handpicked candidate of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and the national Republican establishment—points the way for other Republicans looking to run successful races in the fall. For the Republicans, the Kentucky and Arkansas results offer a clear direction for the fall campaign. Absent a new Contract With America emphasizing less spending and taxation, and tax incentives to stimulate the economy, the GOP will not fully be able to take advantage of an electorate that is desperate for change—voters who have largely, if not totally, repudiated the president, and are looking for alternatives to the current administration’s policies.
For the Democrats, there is hope—more hope than would have been expected before Tuesday. But that hope is based almost totally on running as far away from Washington and the established political leadership as possible, and embracing a socially and fiscally conservative agenda. The Democrats need to make it clear that they understand and appreciate the restive movement of the electorate as well as its frustration with a Republican Party that has failed to offer a clear and compelling agenda of their own.
Douglas E. Schoen is a political strategist and author of THE POLITICAL FIX: Changing the Game of American Democracy, from the Grass Roots to the White House.