Style Over Substance

With Ernst and Gardner, Republicans Think They’ve Found the Formula

Smile, don’t scowl. Come across as engaged. Cut the crazy talk. Speak only of your non-extreme positions. It looks like it’s working.

Republicans think they have found the secret sauce to insure victory with candidates Cory Gardner in Colorado and Joni Ernst in Iowa, who go into Election Day with slightly better than even odds they will return two Democratic Senate seats to the Republican fold. Both are energetic and engaging campaigners, and their winning style has received more media attention than their conservative positions, which each has successfully downplayed, to the consternation of Democrats.

“If they win, it will be a victory of style over substance,” says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, who calls them “model candidates” for the GOP. “They leaned into the public, they talked a broader women’s agenda, they had women in their ads, and of course Ernst is a woman,” says Lake, noting that Ernst has the added advantage of doing well among men, which is not surprising, since “all Republicans have double-digit advantages among men.”

What makes Ernst and Gardner potential game changers for the GOP is the way they’ve navigated the divide within the party between the hard right and more traditional conservatives, holding onto their hard-core base while straying into moderate territory, ground where the GOP’s civil war is fought.

“He’s (Gardner) just in the sweet spot for Republicans, conservative enough to hold conservatives, and not so far to the right he alienates non-Republicans,” says Jack Pitney, Professor of Politics at Claremont-McKenna College. “The Republican establishment wanted him and made it happen.”

As for Ernst, “part of it with her is luck,” says Pitney. “She drew an amazingly inept opponent in [Rep. Bill] Braley, and the hog ad won the primary for her. She comes across well on TV. She smiles, which sounds like a small thing, but a lot of Republicans growl. And it helps that she has a military background.” (Ernst commanded National Guard troops in Iraq.)

A Washington Post profile lauds Ernst as a “biscuit-baking, gun-shooting, twangly, twinkly farm girl,” who rocketed to the top as the only woman in an all-male primary field and has been holding her own in Iowa, one of only two states that has never elected a woman statewide or sent a woman to Congress. (The other is Mississippi.) Her opponent, an earnest but colorless Democratic congressman, is struggling to keep his party’s traditional advantage among women in the face of Ernst’s personality bandwagon.

In Colorado, Gardner too comes across as likeable, apparently a new thing for conservatives. Conservative columnist George Will calls him a “cherubic 40-year-old…a human beam of sunshine.” Gardner has weathered a barrage of attack ads from Udall’s campaign reminding voters of extreme positions he backed in the Colorado state house and in Congress that he now disavows, saying he will vote against a personhood amendment on the Colorado ballot that he supported in two previous elections.

Gardner doesn’t like to talk about it, but he is still listed as a co-sponsor of the federal “Life at Conception” Act.

Ernst voted for a personhood amendment last year as an Iowa state senator, and before she became a serious contender for a Senate seat, she was a reliable voice on the right endorsing the impeachment of President Obama and the right to carry guns to protect oneself and one’s property against the federal government.

Generally when Republican candidates walk away from any of these core conservative principles, they pay a price. “What you worry about in a race like this is voters not voting,” says Republican pollster Neil Newhouse. “But the enthusiasm has not dropped off among conservatives.” No one is calling either candidate a RINO (Republican in Name Only) even though they’re not championing a personhood amendment the way they have in the past.

Asked if Gardner has changed his mind on the issues, Newhouse replied, “None of these guys ever change their positions. They get elected to office because they believe in stuff. They only emphasize some things and not others.”

It’s all a matter of emphasis, and we’ll know on election night which candidate emphasized the winning issues. If Gardner prevails over Udall, a Democratic consultant who did not want to be named said it will be because the Udall campaign misjudged the electorate. “The number one issue for the middle class is that their best days are behind them,” he says. “You can’t change the subject. If you were Tom Hanks from Castaway and you just landed in Colorado, you’d think the #1 issue is abortion and it just isn’t. The race is too poll driven.” He added that Udall, a middle-of-the-roader who works well with Republicans in the Senate, “was captured by consultants.”

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Consultants tend to fight the last campaign, and the war against women may have exhausted itself with the help of a new breed of Republican candidates who smile, seem moderate, and may have resurrected that Reaganesque magic that eluded the party for too long.