In times of political turmoil, it’s always good to be able to reach back to the 1960s for some Buffalo Springfield lyrics, and this is political turmoil. Both parties are seeing the conventional wisdom of their nomination fight (Republicans) and nomination coronation (Democrats) turned upside down, not so much by a pair of outside-the-box candidates, but more by the voters.
Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are, to quote Dennis Green, who we thought they were. Instead, it is the voters who are driving this. And, that’s who Republican members of Congress need to focus on – not the candidates in the Presidential race, but the voters who are angry and unhappy with the direction of the country.
The current discontent is the result of eleven straight years of wrong track pessimism in national polling. This is the longest period of pessimism ever measured. The status quo – which by and large means incumbents – is something voters are weary of. There is also a sense that while Americans are working harder than ever, they are treading water financially. They believe the deck is stacked against them by politics and politicians, big business and bankers, the media, and other American AND world institutions.
Problems are going unsolved, whether it is the border, the economy, the War on Terror, the cost of higher education, and others.
This has created a political environment that encourages primary challenges and election upsets. So, here is a list of Do’s and Don’ts for Republican officeholders that I put together with assists from Neil Newhouse and Jim Hobart. Here’s the list. . .
- Do understand just how angry the GOP base is at not only Obama and Hillary, but also the GOP Establishment. There is a belief that Washington, DC is not working because the politicians have been sidetracked by power, money, and Potomac Fever.
- Do focus on the voters. This political anger is not just about Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. It is that the status quo is not working to help people get ahead in America.
- Do understand that voters are not just concerned, but also understand what is driving that concern – cost of living, inability to get ahead, and other deep-rooted economic concerns.
- Do touch base with as many GOP leaders in the district as possible. If you are not listening, they are losing faith in you.
- Do have your team do opposition research on you. Not from the perspective of Democratic candidates, but from the perspective of a primary opponent running against you from the populist right.
- Do go home every weekend to the district. Every weekend.
- Do listen to the voters. Let them talk about the challenges facing them in their lives. Go to the lower middle income parts of your district and meet with base voters there. If those voters turn against you as well as against Washington, it increases the likelihood that a primary challenger could get legs.
- Do be frank. One of the reasons GOP voters find Trump refreshing is because he says whatever comes to mind – which is what they are thinking as well. Not everyone is going to agree with everything you say, but you will get credit for speaking your mind.
- Do be prepared to answer questions on the issues that are dominating the discussion during the Republican Presidential primary.
- Don’t take your political standing for granted. Don’t take anything for granted. Not everyone will be primaried. And, among those who are challenged, most will win re‑election. However, some will not take their opposition very seriously and they will lose. Don’t be that Congressman. There can be multiple Eric Cantors.
- Don’t forget that many Republicans are populists. It’s not just Democrats who feel like the powerful have fixed the rules for their own benefit. GOP voters don’t trust big government or big business.
- Don’t tout the powerful committees you are on. Nobody knows what they do, and committees imply business as usual.
- Don’t use pictures of you in front of the Capitol dome or on a committee dais. Don’t “go Washington.”
- Don’t avoid town hall meetings. Hiding may make you feel better, but it won’t serve as a pressure relief.
- Don’t complain about the cost of maintaining two households. Not only is there no sympathy about that, but trying to equate your financial challenges with voters’ will also provoke a harsh backlash. (Ask Ms. “Dead broke” Clinton).
- Finally, don’t ever forget that you are not representing Washington to your district, but you are representing your district in Washington. A “this is how Washington works so that’s why I voted that way” mentality will pay harsh dividends.
A political storm is not coming. It is already here. To survive it you will have to work harder and more aggressively than in 2012. This could be like the turmoil of 2006, but more for primaries.