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.

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