As America enters a new era driven by the civic political orientation of the Millennial Generation and minorities, each party must decide the type of ideological and demographic coalition that will give it the best shot at future success. This week's elections provided some clear clues to both Democrats and Republicans on which strategic direction to take. Whether either party's national leadership has the political perspicacity to follow that path to success in the 2010 off-year elections and beyond, however, is far less clear.
The special election in upstate New York's 23rd Congressional District seemed to shine the brightest light on where the American electorate is headed. The state's local Republican Party leadership, mindful of Barack Obama's 52% majority in this once heavily Republican district, nominated a moderate, (some would later say liberal) candidate, Dede Scozzafava. Her political profile was similar to two of the most successful Republicans in New York history, Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Senator Jacob Javits, both of whom served in America's last civic era more than a half century ago. But the GOP base outside of New York's "North Country" had long since moved past these faded images from the 1960s and was more interested in supporting a candidate whose conservative fiscal policies matched his attitudes on social issues such as gay marriage and abortion.
Taking advantage of the presence of a separate ballot line, national Republicans led by Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh, rallied behind the candidacy of Conservative Party candidate, Doug Hoffman, whose ideas fit their conception of the ideology that would unite and excite the GOP base. But even in a Congressional district that hadn't elected a Democrat to Congress since the formation of the Republican Party that approach failed to generate a victory for Hoffman, who got only 46% of the vote. Even after dropping out and endorsing the Democrat, Scozzafava got 5% of the vote from some very loyal Republicans, giving Owens a 3% margin of victory, very similar to Obama's margin in the district in 2008. While it would be wrong to extrapolate these results from such a unique district to the American electorate as a whole, the outcome does suggest that a strident and consistently conservative ideological approach will not be the way for Republicans to regain majority status anytime soon.
At the same time that they were losing in New York, Republicans were successful in both the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial elections. By running positive campaigns focused on job creation and lower taxes, while downplaying social issues, both Robert McDonnell in Virginia and Chris Christie in New Jersey, were able to stop a recent streak of Democratic victories in those states. All of this, as one of the smartest political journalists in DC, Ron Brownstein has pointed out, is reminiscent of the appeal and turmoil that Ross Perot's 1992 candidacy for President brought to American politics.
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