Friday, November 14, 2008

The Republicans' Rosetta Stone

Behold, Republicans. The Rosetta Stone for your demise has been unearthed right here in Michigan.

After last week's bloodbath, conservatives are desperately trying to decipher exit poll data and county-by-county vote tallies for answers as to what went wrong. But the key to Republican renewal is right in front of us.

Let's journey to the 7th Congressional District, that swath of rural rugged individualism from the Lansing suburbs to the Indiana-Ohio border. The district was designed to be the most Republican in the state, but come January, a liberal Democrat will represent it in Congress.

State Sen. Mark Schauer, D-Battle Creek, toppled Republican U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg 49 to 47 percent on Nov. 4. True to his petulant nature, the soon-to-be-ex-congressman waited well into the next day to concede, I'm told, although the results were clear.

How did this happen? Ask Joe Schwarz.

Back in 2004, the centrist eked out a GOP primary win for an open seat against Walberg and four other cookie-cutter conservatives. Schwarz's bipartisan appeal earned him 58 percent of the vote in the general.

The Battle Creek physician and 16-year veteran of the state Senate was ranked one of the top 10 most effective freshman members of Congress. He trekked home every weekend, hitting the pig roast circuit in the southern counties like Lenawee and Hillsdale that regarded him with suspicion, despite his conservative bona fides as a decorated Vietnam War veteran and CIA operative, who among other things, helped save Indonesia from a violent Communist coup.

Walberg, a faceless former state rep and Bible salesman, spied an opening. No one could beat Schwarz in a general election - that was clear - but GOP primaries are odd, cloistered contests that disproportionately draw the far right.


With a little help (say, about $1 million) from the anti-tax smear machine Club for Growth, Wally was in business for '06. The Club reduced Schwarz to a caricature, an "embarrassingly liberal" dude who liked nothing better than dispensing Viagra to bums on welfare. As an evangelical preacher, Walberg took care of the church crowd, warning that the good doctor was a baby-killing gay lover out to steal our guns.

Schwarz wasn't helped any when he had to take controversial votes on issues like gay marriage, which he said was redundant. So why did former Majority Leader John Boehner allow that to come to the floor? Why didn't the Michigan Republican Party and the National Republican Congressional Committee sit Timmy down and tell him to butt out?

Because the truth is, the Republican machinery is controlled from top to bottom by right-wing activists. And they like Walberg's politics a lot more than Schwarz's. The seat will always stay Republican, they reasoned, so why not trade a maverick for a foot soldier?

In the end, it wasn't even close. Walberg won by 6 points. But the darling of the far right couldn't even break 50 percent that fall against Sharon Renier, an organic chicken farmer with $1.03 in the bank.

"You're just setting this seat up for Mark Schauer to win it in 2008," warned Schwarz aide Matt Marsden, who was promptly mocked for having sour grapes.

One of the cynics, columnist Brad Flory, conceded this week in the Jackson Citizen Patriot, "Those Schwarz people look like geniuses now."

You betcha.

This year, Republicans lost another crop of moderates thanks to Club for Growth's scorched earth tactics, including U.S. Rep. Wayne Gilchrest in Maryland and U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson in New Mexico.

Enough is enough. The GOP needs a moratorium on primarying incumbents, stat.

The holy grail of ideological purity has proven to be the priciest of illusions. The number of seats lost because the GOP no longer appeals to moderate, suburban voters is staggering. Many centrists have fled the party (Schwarz is a Republican-leaning independent who endorsed Schauer), thus robbing the GOP of institutional knowledge critical to rebuild.

Indeed, much of the brain trust - Colin Powell, former U.S. Sen. Lincoln Chafee, former Rep. Jim Leach - are odds-on favorites to join the Barack Obama administration.

Sadly, there are few grown-ups to tell the right-wing rapscallions to put down the Pop Rocks and come down from the sugar high of deliciously divisive politics. They don't work anymore.

Karl Rove ain't the messiah -he's just another washed-up pundit on teevee who's fallen into the trap of insisting elections can be won with the same nasty tactics from his glory days. Electorates change. Politics change. The Republican Party needs to be nimbler and more inclusive to survive and flourish.

So where's the party heading in Michigan? State Sen. Alan Cropsey, R-DeWitt, a close ally of Walberg and a Bob Jones University grad, reportedly has the answer to the GOP's woes in '10.

Why, a ballot question banning gay adoption, of course.

Now, I could show him the data that initiatives don't drive up the vote unless it's on affirmative action (and that's already been done, folks).

But Cropsey undoubtedly has God on his side. And Democrats from Grosse Pointe to Grayling are hoping he keeps the faith.

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