Lessons from the blue states as RI Republicans prepare for ’14

Rhode Island Republicans aren’t alone in their conundrum.

The state party just took another drubbing in a big election year, managing to lose a bunch of its few General Assembly seats and striking out against a deeply tarnished incumbent congressman. Their compatriots in places like Massachusetts, California and Washington can sympathize.

The big question is, what now?

Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian, one of the most prominent Republicans in the state (and someone who actually wins elections), said during an RIPR panel interview Thursday that as 2014 approaches he’s keeping in close touch with Cranston Mayor Allan Fung and former congressional hopeful Brendan Doherty, an attempt to coordinate their efforts and come up with a viable slate of candidates.

It’s actually not that hard to imagine a competitive hypothetical Republican ticket for 2014, at least when it comes to statewide offices: Fung for governor, Avedisian for lieutenant governor, Doherty for attorney general, Catherine Taylor for secretary of state and someone else for treasurer. (Of course, so far none of them have announced they’re running for those offices.)

What about federal races? Frankly, Rhode Island’s GOP might be better off avoiding those altogether in 2014: Jack Reed is basically a lock, Jim Langevin looks safe and David Cicilline seems secure. Federal contests inevitably lead local voters to focus on the national GOP, as we saw in the Cicilline-Doherty race; that can only hurt state-level Republican candidates, who are better off if the focus stays squarely on Smith Hill.

In the meantime, it’s worth looking at the conversations Republicans are having in other deep-blue states.

Chris Vance, the former chairman of the GOP in Washington state, argued in a recent op-ed that Republicans in blue states like his own or Rhode Island should be hoping the party’s national leaders will shift their message in a way that wins over the center of the electorate.

“Republicans need to recapture the moderate, solutions-oriented message and tone that was lost when the war on terror swallowed the Bush domestic agenda,” Vance wrote. “To do otherwise is to rely on an ever shrinking base, and the cynical hope that millions of Americans won’t exercise their right to vote.”

Rhode Island’s Republicans could be forgiven for looking jealously at their friends in Massachusetts, who still have a prominent figure with statewide popularity in former U.S. Sen. Scott Brown. But Michael Graham, who hosts a WTKK-FM radio show, says it’s a mixed blessing:

Brown’s [2012] campaign slogan was “I don’t like Republicans that much, either.” And if I were trying to win an election in Massachusetts in 2012, I would do the same.

But that’s the problem: As long as you can’t win by running as a Republican, then the quality of candidates or amount of money the GOP can raise is irrelevant. In fact, “anti-Republican” GOP candidates like Brown actually make the party’s long-term brand problem worse.

When you’re winning elections by running against the Republican brand, every victory is pyrrhic.

The solution is for the GOP to stop looking for silver-bullet, one-trick candidates and start building its brand again. Spend money marketing the GOP ideas that are popular here in New England, spend money reminding people of the lousy consequences of voting Democrat (see “Hill, Beacon”), and then spend time and money finding and developing candidates who can carry that message.

4 thoughts on “Lessons from the blue states as RI Republicans prepare for ’14

  1. The GOP will never succeed in RI. It’s just a fact. Although the GOP would improve the fiscal climate, there are too many people being assisted by the political system in RI that do not want to take a chance on growth. Also, the current backing of the GOP by the NRA will destroy the GOP’s image once again. All the Dems have to do is show how much $$ the GOP gets from the NRA while showing pictures of gun violence and headlines from Newtown… The GOP is dead as long as they remain associated with the NRA and extremist groups….

  2. Mr. Graham offers up a good solution but I am not certain it would work in RI because it says “spend money” and it’s a documented fact that RIGOP is incapable of raising it. No one gives to the state party because with the exception of the brief Ken McKay era, it has been run badly for the past 20 years. The Almond and Carcieri teams invested no effort in building the party and developing a “bench” so there are few Rhode Island Republicans with any real political experience unless they’ve worked elsewhere – or for Democrats. Another problem for the RIGOP – because there are so few R electeds – and the GOP stain is so bad – the very thin GOP bench can’t find work here and so they leave – Ken McKay is the best example, but just last week, Doherty’s manager, Ian Prior, took a job in DC. The talented people who remain here and lean Republican try to make a living while avoiding the GOP label and anything to do with party politics.

    So essentially the RIGOP has no money and no talent. So where to? The mayors are the one bright spot – Fung, Fontaine and Avedesian. They have all been good in their roles but none has the star power to contend in a governor’s race. Kilmartin looks comfortable in the AG role and it would be hard to displace him on performance at this point. I think that there’s hope for the RIGOP in three races: Treasurer, Secretary of State and Lt Governor. With the exception of the master lever pullers, Rhode Islanders have always been ticket-splitters – especially outside of the cities – so it’s not hard to see how these statewide offices are winnable. The key for GOP candidates is to get in the races early with a well-defined platform so the can lay out their ideas and don’t get lost in the noise around a D primary. The party would also do well to recruit Catherine Taylor to run again and work with her to build a strong group of women candidates for GA seats.

    I don’t think RIGOP should focus on Governor’s race – it has not helped the party in the past and it takes all the strength out of the base. If a self-funded candidate comes along – great – but at this point he would be a sacrificial lamb. (And let’s agree to stop saying that Robitaille “came close”. Yes, he grabbed the whopping R base and came in 2nd in a 4 way – which is actually equivalent to coming in 2nd in a 2 way.)

    The previous comment addresses some of the issues – and I will agree that to the extent RIGOP can distance itself from the national party, the better off it will be. However, until RIGOP can build itself up by fielding successful moderate candidates – and 2014 may be the last chance – the national issues are almost irrelevant in state and local races.

  3. Fung / Avedisian ticket would be hard to ignore / not vote for, and I’m most certainly not a Republican, but their records speak for themselves. Excellent, fiscally disciplined men who are moderate on social issues, I like them both very much. Also, watch out for the young ones in that party. My neighbor is a GOP-ite, and keeps talking about a young girl named Barbara Ann they are grooming, as well as Patrick Sweeney, as possible saviors of the party.

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