Lessons from Alabama: GOP, throw out the old playbook • The Hill
Thought experiment: Had the GOP candidate been anyone other than Roy Moore, would Doug Jones still have won? That the political world knows the answer is “no” tells us that, whatever the attempted spin, Alabama was not a referendum on Trump or his agenda.
But there are real and salient lessons to be learned from this race about how our political environment is evolving, lessons that will have important implications for the 2018 mid-terms.
The Alabama election should serve as a wake-up call to political professionals and their donors, confirming once again that their supposedly tried-and-true methods no longer work. Despite the blame game going on within wings of the GOP, this is true for both the establishment and the true believers.
First, Alabama is another reminder about the limits of big money and the problem of having metrics that measure the wrong thing. For many big political groups, their metric seems less what you’d assume — influencing the outcome of elections — than the amount of money they spend on ads to outmatch opponents and please donors, even if the politicos know their costly efforts aren't really moving the needle.
In the Alabama primary, establishment money spent to support Luther Strange was worse than useless. It became an albatross around his neck, branding him as a ‘bought and paid for’ puppet of D.C. rather than a true representative of the people. Alabamans didn't appreciate being told by Washington, D.C., big-money, Republican Party insiders how to vote, which tainted Sen. Strange and helped nominate Judge Moore.
The lesson here is that the messenger is often as — or even more — important than the message: If your brand is toxic, then better to stay out or enable third parties who don’t have that baggage to make the case.
Second, Alabama is also a cautionary tale about the limits and challenges of the now-standard GOP strategy of focusing on the base, regardless of repercussions with swing voters.
During the primary, Steve Bannon was able to capitalize on the anti-establishment, anti-McConnell sentiment to boost Roy Moore — a singularly problematic and divisive candidate who had failed to carry the state several times when running for governor.
Bannon and the Moore campaign then continued to use the template of campaigns on the right — i.e., find issues where you can drive a wedge and turn out more of your supporters than theirs — but in the process Moore alienated many who were not his most-committed base.
The hard feelings that lingered from the bruising primary, coupled with the sex scandal public relations disaster, energized many who might have otherwise stayed on the sidelines, and opened the door for a last minute write-in campaign for an alternative to Moore, providing a conscience-salving option for those who wanted to vote — but not for either candidate. The result was the gift of a deep red senate seat to a Democrat.
Third, as we saw in 2016, and mirrored again recently in Virginia, turnout is key — it’s killer if one team has too many who stay home, whether through aversion or complacency, and the other is highly motivated. On election day, Democrats succeeded in getting out their base far more successfully than did Republicans. Black voters — 96 percent of whom supported Jones — cast 29 percent of votes in 2017, a much larger share than in 2012, when Barack Obama was last on the ballot. Jones also dominated with younger voters and women with children.
Which leads to the fourth takeaway: These constituencies — millennials, independents, moderate swing voters, women, and minorities — will be decisive in the 2018 mid-terms. Sadly, these are also the groups with whom the right often fails to communicate effectively — assuming they attempt to communicate with them at all.
Smart GOP candidates and donors should be looking for new, effective ways to talk to and to persuade these key constituencies, rather than replaying the approaches (see points one and two above) that yielded losses for Rep. Joe Heck in Nevada, Sen. Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, Sen Luther Strange, and now Judge Moore in Alabama.
Finally, everyone in politics should also realize that the zeitgeist has changed and there won’t be any push to go back – at least not until the accused in the White House is once again a Democrat. Never mind that for decades the public has been told by Democrats, who supported Ted Kennedy and Bill Clinton, that however badly they behaved personally, it was more important to support them for the sake of getting “good” policy.
(No kids, we’re not making this up: For those too young to remember, in 1998 reporter Nina Burleigh famously said “I would be happy to give (President Clinton) a blowjob just to thank him for keeping abortion legal. I think American women should be lining up with their Presidential kneepads on to show their gratitude for keeping the theocracy off our backs.” And Gloria Steinem explained that even if Clinton were guilty as charged (and one of the charges included rape), that resignation wasn’t warranted, just therapy.)
GOP voters in Alabama weren’t buying this argument. The GOP’s historic intolerance for bad personal behavior (see responses to Bob Livingston, Mark Foley, Larry Craig, and Bob Packwood), heightened by the new cultural drumbeat of #metoo, and finally amplified by the Democrats’ eleventh-hour sacrifices of Representative Conyers and Senator Franken — necessary if they wanted to have standing to leverage outrage at the accusations confronting Moore and Trump — made it very hard for many voters to like themselves if they voted for Moore.
Expect a lot more female candidates to run, a welcome outcome for many, as they will be far less vulnerable to potential accusations of inappropriate behavior, and will not be perceived as part of the old boy’s network of D.C. insiders.
The 2018 elections are still nearly a year away, which means that there will be major shifts in opinion and priorities to come. Yet smart politicos will recognize that there are more fundamental changes at play, with people wanting more from their representatives.
Voters want sincere efforts to achieve policy, not just the lip-service of an ad campaign that lasts only as long as the campaign itself. They want to see not wedges, but respect for all individuals, and not objectification, but the assumption that all constituents are important to a campaign and to policy. Like the women of #metoo, the voters of this country are also saying #metoo, and demanding respect from the political class.
Or as we who champion all women say: about damn time.
Heather R. Higgins is president and CEO of Independent Women’s Voice,an organization promoting conservative free market solutions that advance prosperity, freedom, and greater choices. Follow her on Twitter @TheHRH.