Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Goldwater Girls Gone Bad: Can the ACU's Cong. Honor Roll Really Make Them Right in Their Heart Again?

The American Conservative Union issued its 2008 congressional scorecard today. Both of ElectionDissection.com’s editors showed up at the Nat’l Press Club, and grabbed hard copies of the ratings. It’s a good thing we stopped by; the ratings are yet to be available online, though the site has a deep archive dating back to 1971 that looks like it a offers a fascinating peek at the changes that have occurred in Congress since then, and how the conservative movement looks at the institution and its Members.

One of the “NPC Newsmaker” events the Club holds regularly, the press conference was sparsely attended, and among those who couldn’t fill up the smaller Murrow Room, there seemed to be as many or more conservative movement/activist types on hand as journalists. No surprise, considering the “Newsmaker” was ACU president David Keene, a movement veteran, and the NPC advertised that he would “discuss the state of conservative activism following the 2008 elections” and hype CPAC, this weekend’s ACU-sponsored young Republican tent revival.

The yawn that greeting this year’s ratings – nobody from Roll Call, The Hill, Politico, CQ, NattyJo, etc. were recognizable in the seats – might be attributable to the trend, distinct since the ’94 Republican takeover, that’s seen more ideological cohesiveness among Members in both parties in both chambers.

Keene conceded that “the real change in America is, of course, demographic,” in parrying what the conservative activist questioner thought was a softball he lobbed at him. No, it wasn’t all that anti-immigrant haranguing that scared Hispanics away from the Republican brand, even rejecting John McCain and his solid open borders credentials in bigger numbers than G.W.’s slide from 2000 t0 2004. It was just message; a failure to communicate and appeal to the natural social conservatism of the bulk of Hispanic voters.

Keene’s prescription: just reiterate more emphatically – or, in his view, return to, after the Bush Administration’s various apostasies – a core Republican message that is disseminated more efficiently and effectively by harnessing new media. (À la Anuzis: Twitter to the kids more!) And the ACU’s, and CPAC’s, role, of course, is to inspire the conservative base to make sure Republicans in Congress adhere to that philosophy.

So, ElectionDissection.com started breaking down how many of those Members the ACU deemed sufficiently devoted to Reagan’s legacy hailed from its Southern and Great Plains regional rumps, but gave up halfway. Certainly more of the “wets” hailed from the Northeast. Maine’s stimulus-saving Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins clock in with a 12 and 20, respectively, and fmr. Conn. Rep. Chris Shays, New England’s last Wooly Mammoth (read: House Republican) could only muster a 32. Similarly anomalous is fmr. Rep. Robin Hayes of No. Carolina, who shifted to the left on economics in an effort to hang on in his CD of shuttered textile plants after an unexpected nail biter in ’06 and scores a mere 48.

But with three-quarters of the 110th Congress’ House Republican Conference scoring 80% or higher in agreement with the ACU position on the roll call votes they rate, the “honor roll” is basically reflective of the Conference at-large. (Of course, it’s tempting to be selective with which votes are selected, to reward friendly Members and not alienate influential committee chairs, etc. Democrats made so many gains in 2006 and 2008 that they now boast a caucus more diverse than any Congress since before ’94, which might make the Americans for Democratic Actions’ – the ACU's liberal inverse – ratings more telling after the 111th first session. Nevertheless, the ADA’s 2008 ratings are about as unilluminating as the ACU’s.)

So, let’s take Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), whom Keene dubbed the “smartest guy” in the House GOP Conference; a stalwart exponent of the message he’s advocating. Ryan’s CD flipped in ’08, when Obama captured 51% even as Ryan was reelected with nearly two-thirds of the same electorate. (Bush bested Kerry 53%-46% here four years before.) So, Ryan held on, a rare case vindicating Keene’s strategy.

One state to the south offers a starker contrast. Republicans are salivating over a potential special election for embattled Sen. Roland Burris’ Illinois Senate seat, once held by Obama himself. Two Republican U.S. Reps. from neighboring suburban Chicago districts are staring down each other for the GOP nod: reliable Republican Peter Roskam (ACU ’08 rating: 96) and perennial target of conservative ire Mark Kirk (ACU ’08 rating: 48). Considering that GOP primary electorates remain very conservative, even in Blue States, Roskam would be favored at first blush.

While the main counties in both Members’ CDs – Lake Co. in Kirk’s; DuPage Co. in Roskam’s – saw a dramatic shift to Obama, like affluent, educated suburban locales nationwide, these counties are remarkable even given that the trend here may be over-pronounced due to Obama’s Favorite Son status. These counties have been so reliably Republican that even “homegirl” Hillary Rodham Clinton was a Goldwater Girl here back in ’64.  But HRC followed a trajectory now familiar among women of her generation who hail from the Collar Counties: product of a conservative, upwardly-mobile Republican household goes off to an elite institution of higher learning (say, Wellesley) and graduates with an even higher earning potential and the de rerigueur decidedly liberal politics that ascending in those circles demands.  To smarting conservative Republicans: Goldwater Girls Gone Bad.

While Roskam increased his reelect margin from ‘06, and Kirk held steady, could Roskam’s more rigid conservatism win in Lake Co., now much more Democratic? It’s more plausible that Kirk’s more malleable positions could take DuPage as well as Lake and dig into Democratic margins in Red County Lincolnland.  Can Roskam's unwavering conservatism, more than Kirk's more moderate stands, really bring those Goldwater Girls Gone Bad back into the fold?

If Illinois’ political melodrama plays itself out, we may get a test of Keene’s strategy soon.


A parting thought: it should be noted that the most salient issues that divide moderate and conservative, suburban and rural Republicans remain those explosive cultural issues. Not a single so-called “social issue” roll call vote merits a rating by the ACU in ’08, save for a vote on benefits to “illegal” immigrants.

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