Republican candidates who run as unapologetic conservatives opposed to forced unionization, higher energy taxes, and government run healthcare in 2010 could position their party for mid-term electoral gains that exceed the historical average.
Although President Obama maintained strong personal approval ratings for much of his first year in office, public support for his top legislative items evaporated quickly. In a telling sign, independent voters sided with Republican gubernatorial candidates in Virginia and New Jersey this year by sizable margins -- 65 percent and 58 percent, respectively.
Ben Dworkin, a political science professor with Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J., attributed the Republican win in his state to internal dynamics unrelated to national issues in his post-election analysis. Christie benefited by running against an unpopular incumbent and by addressing affordability concerns, the Rider professor concluded.
By contrast, McDonnell repeatedly invoked the specter of financially burdensome legislation moving at the national level to keep his Democratic opponent on the defensive in Virginia, with card check near the top of the list.
Republican strategists who are ambitious to nationalize the upcoming congressional races would do well to emulate the tactics McDonnell used in his race against Creigh Deeds, a state senator who had defeated former Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairman Terry McAuliffe in their party's primary.
Deeds trailed McDonnell right from the start and attempted to close the gap by seizing upon a 1989 thesis the Republican candidate wrote for Regent University, a Virginia Beach-based Christian institution founded by televangelist Pat Robertson.
Charles Dunn, dean of Regent University's School of Government, said in an interview that the incessant attacks on McDonnell's thesis may have ultimately hurt Deeds with his own constituents.
"He [McDonnell] did not run against his record and this is a huge plus," Dunn said. "When you have candidates who start running against their past they have a credibility problem. McDonnell did not need to emphasize social issues in the campaign because he already had this constituency and was free to focus on economic concerns."
Dunn also suggested that Deeds may have deflated support for himself in his own precincts because he comes from a conservative part of Virginia where the commercials attacking the Regent thesis may have actually boosted McDonnell's esteem among those voters.
Instead of playing defense, McDonnell campaigned without apology as both a social and economic conservative committed to protecting Virginia's interests against federal encroachment. By focusing attention on the many economically unsound aspects of President Obama's agenda, McDonnell greatly complicated his opponent's campaign.
The card check and binding arbitration provisions of the so-called "Employee Free Choice Act" (EFCA) would add additional costs and new burdens to business owners who are already operating in a recessionary climate, McDonnell pointed out in his pitch to voters.
Opinion polls show the public is attuned to the anti-democratic elements of card check and ardently favor maintaining the secret ballot in union organization elections. But it is also vitally important to emphasize the impact binding arbitration could have on business owners and the economy at large, McDonnell explained in an interview.
"I think binding arbitration is actually the most egregious part of EFCA," he said. "Allowing a federal arbitrator to come in and basically write a contract between labor and management if an agreement cannot be reached after 120 days is a horrible policy. This will put a terrific burden on business to cave into any number of demands. Binding arbitration is yet another example of an over burdensome federal government that wants to get involved in micromanaging the free enterprise system. It would hurt our competitiveness in Virginia."
In the 2008 election cycle, labor union political action committees (PACS) contributed over $66 million dollars to congressional candidates with 92 percent of those contributions going to Democrats, according to OpenSecrets.org. Card check and binding arbitration remain top priorities for labor bosses who are expecting some form of payback for their contributions.
Looking ahead to the midterm elections, Colin Reed, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), expects anti-free market legislation, such as card check, to figure prominently into campaigns targeting vulnerable Democrats.
"Much like government-run health care, card check may be a top priority of liberal Democrats and left-wing special interest groups in Washington, but polling data consistently shows it is extremely unpopular among voters in red and purple states," said Colin Reed, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC). "Unfortunately for in-cycle Democrats like Harry Reid, Blanche Lincoln, and Michael Bennet, their constituents at home -- not Big Labor party bosses -- will decide their fates at the ballot box, and should they support moving the controversial card check legislation forward in 2010, they can be confident they will be held accountable come November."
F. Vincent Vernuccio, a former special assistant to the Assistant Secretary for Administration and Management at the Department of Labor under President George W. Bush, also sees strong possibilities for Republicans who capitalize on public discontent over EFCA. But he warns that Democrats may attempt to massage the legislation in some way before the midterms.
"The future of EFCA is uncertain," he said. "We are likely to see a 'new EFCA' or 'son of EFCA' early next year after health care. The new bill will likely not have the card check provision but leave the most insidious section allowing government arbitration of first contracts. The bill may also trample on employer property rights. Rumors abound of a new section allowing union officials to come on to company property and speak to employees during work hours. Employers would be powerless to stop this."
That's why Republican strategists would do well to highlight the many harmful effects of EFCA beyond card check just as McDonnell did in Virginia, Vernuccio added. He expects the arbitration section to be a particularly thorny issue for Democrats in the 2010 elections.
"Many Blue Dog Democrats in vulnerable districts were already forced to vote for government run healthcare," he said. "Soon the congressional leadership will try to force them to vote for government imposed contracts. Americans are already leery of the government assuming too much power in everyday life. If the government takeover of healthcare does not put them over the edge, the government takeover of union first contracts surely will."
On average the party in control of the White House loses 17 seats in the House in its first midterm election, according to Congressional Quarterly. But this average jumps to 37 when the president's approval rating falls below 50 percent, Regent's Dean Dunn has noted. Moreover, as a result of the gubernatorial victories in New Jersey and Virginia, Republicans are now better positioned to attract stronger candidates to their cause and to raise money, Dworkin, the Rider University professor, pointed out in his recent election analysis.
"It doesn't matter that the race here in New Jersey was not about national issues and was instead driven by an unpopular incumbent and a fiscal situation that has made 'affordability' a primary concern among voters," Dworkin wrote. "Christie's win will have national implications, but not by design, just by interpretation."
For his part, Dunn, the Regent dean, recommends that Republican candidates establish a connection between the concern voters have over jobs and the potential economic fallout from EFCA and other costly pieces of legislation.
"By running on the model of Bob McDonnell, Republicans could have very large pickups in the House, Senate and with governorships," he said. "So the future is there for the Republican Party and McDonnell is the key to that future."