In his final op-ed piece of 2009 for the Wall Street Journal, Karl Rove, former top aide to President George W. Bush, had a message for the young and talented in the Republican Party. "Ambitious Republicans should resolve to run" read the subtitle of his piece. We agree. Now is the time for Republicans who can seek office to do so. But Rove urged capable Republicans to run at the federal level. Actually, the most critical need now, particularly for political newcomers, could be to seek office at the lower levels -- particularly state legislatures.
Why? Because it's 2010. That means a new census and new district lines at the federal, state, and local levels. In 36 states, the party that controls the state legislature drafts the redistricting plans. The party in control can lock in its dominance for 10 years. Such control will prove particularly crucial in five states that expect to gain seats -- Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, Texas and Utah. Successful redistricting efforts in those states could lead to success at the congressional level by 2012. New districting lines also could prove crucial in states, such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio, that expect to lose seats in 2010. Friendly incumbents could find their re-election prospects brightened by redistricting; unfriendly incumbents could find themselves in far more competitive and expensive races.
Reconnect at the Local Level
Rove's contributions to the downfall of the GOP in recent years go beyond his advice to potential candidates. Initiatives Rove championed, such as the prescription-drug benefit, steel tariffs, and the dramatic increase in domestic spending, caused estrangement between the Republican Party and conservatives among its membership who remained committed to free enterprise, limited government, and personal responsibility. The party desperately needs to repair the alarming disconnect between the GOP brand and its grassroots. That can't be accomplished with out-of-touch, inside-the-Beltway types. It requires a bottom-up approach that recognizes the importance of winning every election in every locality.
Build a Better GOP Farm Team
As such, the GOP must eschew the rent-a-star philosophy of assembling candidate rosters -- the poster boy for which was Lynn Swann in the 2006 Pennsylvania governor's race -- and recommit to nurturing homegrown talent. The star system produces an occasional victory -- John Thune over then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle in 2004, for instance -- but it is not sustainable. Eric Cantor, now minority whip of the U.S. House, exemplifies a better model. The seasoning he received as a member of Virginia's General Assembly helped Cantor rise quickly through the ranks to become the party's number two man in the House.
Better Return on Investment
The homegrown approach -- the approach that values a deep bench and a vibrant farm system -- also happens to cost less. This means a lot to Republicans, not only because they are the party of fiscal responsibility but also because Democrats currently hold a substantial cash advantage. Candidate Obama outspent John McCain by almost 4:1 in 2008, and that advantage is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. Scott Brown's monumental victory in Massachusetts might help some, but Republicans remain plagued by uneven leadership, depleted infrastructure and lack of the kind of cohesive message that can turn disaffected voters into GOP supporters and contributors.
Two-thirds of those who voted for Brown said they did so out of anger at Democratic policies and proposals, not support for Republican ideas. As Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Fla., the former House Republican Conference Chair, told the Washington Post, "The American people have fallen out of love with the current direction, but they haven't fallen in love with Republicans.… Now we need a direction and vision."
In the meantime, to win at the state level costs a fraction of what it takes to win congressional seats. Gubernatorial campaigns cost far less than U.S. Senate races, even though both require statewide campaigns. Considering the importance of redistricting and the role legislatures and governors play in it, state and local races seem a wise investment of both financial contributions and fresh electoral talent in 2010.
Rambo vs. Bond
Last year called for a different approach. Republicans pulled off significant victories in the governors' races in Virginia and New Jersey by focusing substantial resources on just two elections. This won't be possible in 2010, when several thousand seats will be up for grabs across the country. The GOP must choose where to focus this year, and that focus, because of redistricting, financial challenges, and the best prospects of victory should be at the state level. The Rambo approach -- profligate use of all available weapons, destroy everything within blast range -- is out. The James Bond approach -- which relies on precision, efficiency and pinpoint accuracy -- is in for '10.
Winning Both Houses of Congress Is a Long Shot
To be clear, no one here suggests the GOP abandon its efforts to win congressional seats. Backlash against liberal proposals has grown considerably in recent months, and the opportunity seems rife to continue shrinking the Democrats' sizeable majorities in Congress. Even with Brown's victory, though, most pollsters give Republicans little chance of retaking either house. The Brown result may even serve as a wakeup call and help Democratic fundraising, and nobody knows who will be helped or hurt by the Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court decision of last week. Therefore, Republicans will be forced to choose whether to allocate resources to vulnerable congressional candidates or promising legislative candidates. If long-term, sustainable control of Congress remains the goal -- and we insist it does -- then the time is now to build that bench, to invest in the farm system and to nurture that state legislative campaign.
If the GOP somehow does manage to regain control of Congress, it then must recognize such power is a privilege grounded in trust and bestowed on it by the American people. And the people can revoke that support as quickly as they gave it.