Sunday, May 2, 2010

Palin, Emmer, and the Battle to Rebrand the Republican Party

**UPDATE-See my KARE11 TV interview about the Minnesota Governor's race here:

Palin’s endorsement of Tom Emmer was a classic game changer. The announcement last Thursday on the heels of the Minnesota Republican Convention was unpredictable but now in hindsight it makes perfect sense and it should have been predicted. The endorsement is really about two things: Palin’s sway over the Republican Party across America and as a surrogate battle over the presidential nomination between Palin and Pawlenty, should she decide to enter the race.

Palin and Emmer both come from the Tea Party movement of the Republican Party. Both are very conservative, representing the third incarnation of the Republican Party in the last two generations. The first incarnation of the GOP was the old moderate wing that was composed of the Jim Jeffords (VT), Lincoln Chafee (RI), and before that, the liberals Nelson Rockefeller and Jacob Javits. This was the party challenged by Barry Goldwater and its culmination came to a head with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Reagan branded a new Republican Party that was conservative and who saw government as the problem, not the solution seeking a moral fiscally conservative, limited government that believed in deregulation, the market place, and which supported social issues. While conservative this party still managed to work across the aisle with Democrats on many issues. The Republican Party of the last 30 years has been the Reagan brand.

The Reagan Brand had a long life and many adherents, including Tim Pawlenty. As governor, Pawlenty sought to be both a social and fiscal conservative. Socially, his legacy will be one who opposed gay marriage and benefits for same sex couples, supported limits on abortion including a 24 hour waiting bill, and who also initially opposed stem cell research. Fiscally, his legacy is opposition to taxes and his refusal to formally sign any tax increases during his eight years as governor. However that is the extent of his footprint, leaving little other lasting legacy except for his positioning for a presidential candidacy within the Reagan Brand.

Unfortunately, Pawlenty does not understand that the Reagan Brand was coming to an end. George Bush’s eight years as president signaled the coming of the end of the Brand and John McCain’s 2008 loss to Obama the death of it. McCain during the 2008 St. Paul Convention spoke immediately following a biopic of Reagan, and McCain himself said that he wanted change (like Obama) but it would be change back to the Reagan values. McCain’s campaign was thus an effort to extend the Reagan Brand for one more election and it failed.

But McCain’s campaign also brought to life the third recent wave of Republicanism as incarnated in Sarah Palin. This is the anger, anti-government, Tea Party, nativist, anti-intellectual, and practically libertarian wing of Republicanism. While McCain lost the election, Palin won in the sense that she is now fighting to create the new Brand for the party built around her and the likes of Michelle Bachmann, and perhaps Tom Emmer.

Palin wants to represent the new face of the GOP and is traveling the country to endorse candidates. She brings her star power–a rockitcian– wherever she goes. She has created her brand by drawing up pop culture marketing of herself and is combining it with her support for candidates she likes. Doing this accomplishes two things. First, should she run for president she will have many favors owed to her and her rebranding of the party will be one supportive of her values. Second, even if she does not run she is still remaking the face of the party, effecting the Palin brand for a new generation of candidates. This is where Tom Emmer comes in.

Tom has increasingly moved to capture and align himself with the Palin wing of the party. He has moved further to the right over the years. When Tom was first elected he contacted me and asked to carry my campaign finance reform legislation in the Minnesota State Legislature. He introduced my version of McCain-Feingold for the state along with a host of other finance bills. I wonder if he would support them today? I like Tom as a person and we get along well but we have testified on the opposite side of several issues. He supports photo ID for voting, I have testified against it. He supports public disclosure of the names of judges who issue parental bypass orders permitting minors to secure abortions, I have testified against it as simply an effort to commit thuggery against judges.

My point here is that Emmer has been smart to see where the Republican party is headed and it is not towards Reagan, Pawlenty, and Siefert. That brand is dead and is now being replaced by Palin, Bachmann, and Emmer, unabashedly conservative.

Palin’s endorsement of Emmer thus placed her imprimatur on him to help band the Minnesota Republican party. In doing that, Palin yet again one upped Pawlenty. The first time was a few weeks ago with the Palin-Backmann rally in Minneapolis. This time she made Pawlenty all but irrelevant at the State GOP convention. His speech meant nothing on Friday, she stole the show from him and she had more influence in the convention than the governor did in his own state convention. I see the Palin endorsement as a surrogate battle for the presidency between Palin and Pawlenty. It was about rival views of the party, influence, and legacy and guess who won again? Palin again makes Pawlenty look weak.

Final thoughts on Emmer? In his acceptance speech he said in Palinesque that he would not run to the center during the general election but would stay true to his conservative views. Normally this would be a suicide strategy for a gubernatorial candidate in a two party race, but here in a three party contest it might make sense.

The three most important rules of politics for candidates are: 1) have a good political narrative; 2) mobilize your base; and 3) capture the swing voters. In MN, no party had support of more than 50% of the population, meaning that the swing voters control the balance of power in the state. Normally both the DFL and the MN GOP would seek to mobilize their base and then moderate to capture the swing voters. Emmer is signaling he will not follow this strategy. Why might this make sense?

The DFL will have Kelliher Anderson, Dayton, or Entenza as their nominee after the August 10, primary. All three are liberal candidates. My guess is that the percentage of the population that votes or leans Democrat in MN is about 36%. Tom Emmer is perhaps the most conservative GOP candidate in decades. The percentage of the population that votes or leans GOP is about 32%. Finally, the core base of the Independence Party is about 10%. This leaves about 22% of the population that swings.

With DFL and GOP picking candidates who might excite the bases, this leaves enormous room for the Independence Party to carry significant influence and carry the moderates. Emmer may be banking on a viable third party challenge to capture the center, but he is also counting on the anti-incumbent fever and the hope that his base is angrier and more mobilized than the DFL base. In short, while the GOP has a smaller base, they may be more motivated to win and if Emmer simply concentrates on the base, hopes the DFLers are not too motivated to vote, and the Independence Party candidate (Tom Horner I suspect) chews up much of the center, perhaps he (Emmer) will win. We shall see.

In a future blog I will discuss why I think Horner has a real good chance to do well this year if the perfect storm of politics comes together.

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