Republicans at the crossroads

After a rough election, Kentucky GOP divided over lessons learned, path ahead

Nov 16, 2011 at 3:37 pm
Republicans at the crossroads

On election night, a festive crowd of Democrats gathered in Frankfort, celebrating the early returns showing Gov. Steve Beshear with a commanding lead over Republican David Williams in the gubernatorial race.

Meanwhile in Lexington, the election party for Williams and Republicans was desolate, with 20 members of the media from around the state easily outnumbering the somber-faced civilians, who likely saw this sad fate coming for months.

Beshear would win the race easily by more than 20 percent, with Democrats winning five out of the six races on the ballot, four by a blowout margin.

There was one silver lining for the Republicans, with commissioner of agriculture candidate James Comer winning his race over Democrat Bob Farmer by a landslide — picking up more votes than any other candidate in the election — and ensuring the GOP avoided a full sweep. Additionally, Republican treasurer candidate K.C. Crosbie came out of nowhere to almost pull a shocking upset over incumbent Todd Hollenbach, falling just 2 percent short.

But despite the Republicans’ ability to avoid a sweep, they still face tumultuous times ahead. With an important General Assembly session coming in January, there are many questions and divisions within the party — concerning what to do with their defeated leader (Williams), what lessons should be learned from this election, and what direction they should go in the coming year.

Consensus, at this point, seems far away.

The most obvious dilemma Kentucky Republicans face is the fate of David Williams.

Though Williams has held court over the state Senate for 11 years, some critics suggest Republicans would be better off replacing him given his embarrassing loss to Beshear — garnering just 35 percent of the vote.

Following the humbling defeat, Williams promised to work with Beshear next year to find “common ground,” of which there has been little over the past four years. No Republican legislators have publicly stated Williams should go, but many wonder if there is already silent planning behind the scenes to make such a move once the new session begins.

While Williams has had a rocky relationship with the Tea Party — beginning in this year’s GOP primary and continuing with their tepid support in the general election — he’s now facing similar arrows from more establishment figures.

Conservative columnist John David Dyche — often thought of as the oracle to decipher the wishes of Sen. Mitch McConnell — says that if Republicans want to survive, it’s time for Williams to hit the road.

“I think (the Williams era) is over,” Dyche says. “Whether it plays out that way remains to be seen. I definitely think that it should be over.”

At this point, Dyche says he has not yet heard from any GOP lawmakers calling for his demotion, as many still fear Williams, despite his loss. But he says that if Republicans know what’s best for their agenda, someone should step up.

“After an election like this, with a session on the horizon that’s going to be contentious on very big issues, if the Republican Party doesn’t have a new face and a new voice, we’re basically thumbing our nose at the voters. Even Williams is out there saying that it wasn’t the message, it was the messenger. And that’s going to be the case one month, two months, six months, a year from now. So OK, listen to the voters and change messengers.”

Dyche also sees Williams’ call for common ground with Beshear in the next session as rather empty rhetoric, as it’s “likely that Williams would spend the session trying to vindicate and prove right what he said in the campaign.”

Tea Party guru David Adams shares Dyche’s belief that Williams should go — a rare point of agreement between the two — but thinks Williams could hold onto power. If he does, Adams actually hopes Williams becomes even more confrontational with the governor.

“I think we’ve seen way too much common ground between these two,” Adams says. “It has put Kentucky about $1 billion deeper in debt each of the four years that they’ve worked together in Frankfort. So I hope and pray for gridlock.

“I would certainly like to see him run the Senate caucus the way that he ran the last part of his campaign. He kept going father and farther to the right in terms of his rhetoric.”

But the results from election night might call into question a strategy of moving “farther to the right” for Republicans going into next year, as the two GOP candidates who avoided this strategy wound up faring much better than their fellow party members on the ticket.

Taking a break from loading his cattle the Friday after the election, agriculture commissioner-elect James Comer told LEO Weekly that a key to victory was his ability to reach across party lines and gain the support of Democrats.

Seeing that the Republican energy level was low, Comer made a concerted effort to appeal to Democratic voters — who outnumber registered Republicans three-to-two — on the issues and shield himself from a likely defeat at the top of the ticket.

“I talked about revitalizing communities with rural economic development, and how we’re going to do it,” Comer says. “I have the credibility in the industry to get that done, and that was my message. And I think that resonated with Democrats, Republicans and independents.”

Comer’s focus on farming issues and his superior experience to that of his opponent landed him the overwhelming support of the agricultural community, more than 80 percent of whom are registered Democrats, he says.

While Williams spent most of the campaign railing against teachers’ unions, Comer says his support for funding public education — which the poor district he represents relies on heavily — resulted in the rare endorsement of a Republican by the Kentucky Educators Association.

Comer also consciously avoided the strategy of several other Republicans on the ticket by not trying to federalize the race or emphasize social issues that had little to do with his office.

“I didn’t do like Todd (P’Pool, the GOP attorney general candidate who lost to Jack Conway). I didn’t talk about Obamacare and all that,” Comer says. “I’m a conservative Republican, and I don’t apologize for that. But I do think the Republicans have burnt people out over the years on social issues and on trying to nationalize and federalize state and local elections.”

Though Comer did court right-wing and Tea Party groups heavily, his campaign message avoided issues like abortion, unlike Williams, P’Pool and secretary of state candidate Bill Johnson.

“I’m pro-life, and Kentucky Right to Life supported my campaign,” Comer says. “Now, do I go around preaching it in speeches like some on the Republican ticket? No. The most important thing to voters is the economy, and we’re just going to have to remember that and learn that as a party.”

Lexington Councilwoman K.C. Crosbie also ran as a moderate Republican, stressing the issues of the treasurer’s office and her ability to work with Democrats, a point exemplified by the fact that her campaign consultant, Danny Briscoe, is best known for helping elect Democrats. The final ad of her campaign touted the endorsement of Lexington Mayor Jim Gray, a Democrat.

“We had a message with our campaign that tried to reach out to everyone, regardless of who they’re affiliated with,” Crosbie says. “I knew that I needed to get lots of different people voting for me to be able to win this race.”

Unlike Comer, however, Crosbie was unable to consolidate support of the Tea Party, many of whom backed Libertarian candidate Ken Moellman, who ran on the platform of abolishing the office of treasurer. Moellman picked up 37,000 votes, well more than the 18,000 votes Crosbie lost by.

“She didn’t get endorsed by most of the Tea Party, which cost her the election, I think that’s clear,” Briscoe says.

Former Secretary of State Trey Grayson compared the campaigns of Comer and Crosbie to that of his 2007 race, where he was able to overcome a blowout loss by Ernie Fletcher at the top of the Republican ticket.

“Watching the messaging of Comer and Crosbie, they focused on swing voters and messages that had crossover appeal,” Grayson says. “In my race in 2007, I consciously went after voters who maybe wouldn’t have agreed with me on issues outside of the purview of secretary of state, but would agree that I’d done a good job and I was competent.”

Grayson says Comer was able to court the media into highlighting the fact that Williams’ defeat might cause the most qualified candidate in a down-ticket race to lose. He suspects that such coverage probably earned many votes in liberal areas of Louisville, where he was endorsed by The Courier-Journal.

Though Grayson initially thought that stressing federal issues might work in the attorney general’s race, that strategy fell flat for P’Pool.

“Merely being anti-Obama can only take you so far,” Grayson says. “It’s like with the Democrats, being anti-Bush only gets you so far. And I think that’s probably one of the lessons to come from this race.”

John David Dyche concurs, adding that P’Pool’s strategy was a loser.

“He spent too much time and money on Obama and national issues, when he had a fertile ground against Conway,” Dyche says. “I never bought the nationalizing of this election. You couldn’t nationalize Beshear. You couldn’t nationalize Conway. It’s hard to do when it’s not a federal office or when there are not federal candidates on the ballot.”

But P’Pool’s campaign manager, David Ray, blames other factors for the loss. He points to the fact that Conway was a much more formidable challenger than Comer and Crosbie’s opponents. Although P’Pool was outspent and had outside groups airing attack ads, Ray says, “Our message was the better message, frankly.”

David Adams also disagrees that Republican candidates were hurt by running to the right in the general, or that the results show the Tea Party is declining in Kentucky. The Tea Party leader says the inability of Tea Party politicians (like Bill Johnson and state auditor candidate John Kemper) to raise any significant amount of money was their downfall.

However, last year was a much different environment for the Tea Party in Kentucky, as Rand Paul was able to raise a large amount of money, run hard to the right, and still win easily. This year, their candidates’ inability to raise money or win votes in Kentucky coincides with polls showing a decline in membership, as the latest C-J poll shows only 15 percent calling themselves a member of the Tea Party.

“I just absolutely do not see it that way at all, even a little bit,” Adams says. “If we were just political hacks, we’d have jumped on board with David Williams. And that would have been the end of the Tea Party.

“I don’t really consider (polls) to be trustworthy, because with so much negative press, the Tea Party becomes one of those buzzwords that has a lot of negative public perception attached to it. I can imagine the average person getting a call and being asked ‘Are you a tea partier?’ ‘Well heck no! Those guys are crazy!’”

The Republican Party of Kentucky will be undergoing reorganization in March, and many wonder if the Tea Party will make a substantial gain in power, which Adams — who has launched a PAC for Tea Party challengers — is hoping for.

Grayson sees this as a definite possibility.

“If the Tea Party remains organized in certain areas,” he says, “just by following the rules it can take over the party infrastructure, starting at the county and precinct level, moving all the way up.”

And while Dyche isn’t sure if they’ll be able to or not, he doesn’t expect or welcome the likes of Adams gaining more power.

“I don’t pretend that I’m very tied into the Tea Party,” Dyche says, “but to the extent that I have connections there, I don’t get the sense that David Adams’ stock is exceptionally high anywhere in the party right now.”

In the future, Comer isn’t quite sure how much of a force the Tea Party will be, despite the fact that they were solidly in his camp.

“I don’t know how many people are in the Tea Party,” Comer says. “I don’t know how to measure it, and I don’t think anybody does. But the ones that are the face of the Tea Party in Kentucky, their energy level was not in the general election like it was in the primary.

“I guess I’m just going to have to be around for another year or two and learn more about them to see how many of them there are. I can tell you the ones that show up at Tea Party things, they will outwork anybody. How many of them there really are, I just don’t know the answer to that.”