Republicans will not finish the night on November 2 with quite as much success as the political fabulists of the moment imagine. And there is a reason for that. In much of the United States, the Grand Old Party isn’t even bothering to compete.
The reason is that, while most Republican contenders for House and Senate seats take different stands from the Democrats they are challenging, they do not take different stands from one another. While there are exceptions, by and large a Republican contender in Louisiana says pretty much the same thing as a Republican contender in Los Angeles, a Republican in Minnesota says pretty much the same thing as a Republican in Miami.
The sameness has allowed Republicans to develop a coherent national "brand," and that will work this year—just as the same process helped Barack Obama in 2008. But the Republicans are not "cracking" urban and college-town Congressional districts because, for the most part, they aren’t trying. They’re just parroting the positions of the Washington Republicans whose politics have proven to be so unappealing to voters in those communities. As such, they fail to offer an alternative that will attract crossover votes in Congressional districts that voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama in 2008 and that have also backed liberal Democrats in state and local races.
Redistricting, which is done every ten years after the census has been completed, groups like-minded voters together, creating Congressional districts that are likely to re-elect incumbents. There are urban and college-town districts that are liberal—either socially or economically or both—just as there are suburban and rural districts that are conservative.
The point of redistricting is to make the challenger’s job virtually impossible.
But could Republicans do better in urban and college-town districts? Could they pose a more serious challenge to entrenched Democrats?
I think so.
Instead of aping the line of right-wing Republicans in Alabama and Mississippi, a Republican running in an urban or college-town district—to present a real alternative to Baldwin—has to respect his or her district’s history and values.
To do that, I would argue, a credible Republican would have to borrow more from Republicans like Texas Congressman Ron Paul than from boiler-plate partisans like House minority leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Is there a model for such a candidate?
Consider John Dennis, the San Francisco entrepreneur who is mounting a Republican challenge to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California.
Dennis made some news with a modestly controversial Wizard of Oz–themed Internet ad in which he casts Pelosi as the Wicked Witch of the West. "I will save you from those evil Republicans," the Pelosi character cackles in the ad, which mocks the fears so many liberals have of DC Republicans.
Dennis’s libertarian economic stances might inspire fear on the part of liberals. But he presents a credible alternative to Pelosi when it comes to issues of war and peace. In the tradition of old-right Republicans like Ohio Sen. Robert Taft and Nebraska Congressman Howard Buffett—and their heirs, Paul and a handful of others, such as Tennessee Rep. John Duncan Jr. and North Carolina Rep. Walter Jones Jr.—Dennis calls for "ending both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and withdrawing our troops as safely and quickly as possible." And he says: "I do not believe that our troops should be forced to be policemen of the world. Our troops, first and foremost, should protect Americans where they live—in America."
Dennis quotes Ronald Reagan’s line "People do not make wars; governments do," and argues: "The Constitution is clear on who bears the responsibility of the power to declare war, i.e., the Congress. I am strongly opposed to Congress passing resolutions granting the president the authority to use force. Unless there is an imminent attack, the Congress should never disregard its constitutional obligation over the war power. A decision to declare war requires debate, a process that clarifies the country’s situation and leaves a clear conscience whatever is decided."
In San Francisco, that’s arguably a more attractive position than Pelosi has articulated in this campaign—so much so that antiwar activiist Cindy Sheehan, who challenged Pelosi in 2008, is talking up Dennis. And the San Francisco Chronicle says he is "running to the left" of Pelosi.
In fact, he is running to the incumbent’s left… and right. And, as the San Francisco Bay Guardian‘s Tim Redmond has noted: "Dennis has a problem. He’s a member of a party that’s run by barbarians, and if he got elected, and was part of a GOP majority, some very bad people would be in charge. He knows that, and says he wants to change the GOP from within; good luck with that."
When it comes to foreign policy, however, it is fair to say that Dennis does run to the left of Pelosi, which may count for something in America’s most antiwar big city.
The same goes for civil liberties.
Dennis says: "The Constitution was written to restrict the actions of the government, not individuals. That is why we call ours a limited government. Unfortunately, American political vocabulary is filled with a lexicon of different types of liberty: civil liberty, economic liberty, sexual liberty, financial liberty, etc. Yet, in the end, there is only liberty. And if we support some types of liberty but not others, ultimately we will be left without liberty at all."
Specifically, he says that he opposes "warrantless wiretaps," "the creation of extra-judicial systems to deal with enemy combatants" and "waterboarding and other forms of torture," and he says: "I believe our government must respect the 800-year foundation of the law embodied in the principle of habeas corpus."
Again, on these issues, Dennis’s stances are closer to those of the district than Pelosi’s. As such, he offers voters a choice that has meaning in a liberal district.
The alternative is serious enough that, when Ron Paul came to San Francisco to campaign for Dennis—at what was dubbed an "Anti-War, Anti-Washington, Free Speech Rally"—the two Republicans were joined on the stage by leading progressives, including former San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Matt Gonzalez, who ran for vice president in 2008 on Ralph Nader’s independent ticket.
Dennis is, as well, genuinely libertarian on a host of social issues. As such, he can’t be painted into the religious-right corner where most Republicans place themselves.
The bottom line is that Dennis poses a credible alternative to Pelosi—just as conservative Democrats running in states such as Alabama and Mississippi pose credible alternatives to Republicans in the South.
The Democratic and Republican parties have never been monolithic. There’s a reason for that. Different parts of the country have different values and ideological touchstones.
Just as it would be absurd to run a predictable, Pelosi-echoing Democrat in rural Mississippi, it does not make sense to present a standard-issue Republican in a liberal district—be it based in San Francisco or Minneapolis or Madison or New York City.