When I spoke to the Santa Maria Valley Republican Club in February, I tried to share my thoughts on the rifts I saw forming in the Republican Party between the establishment old guard and the incoming Tea Party freshmen. It is becoming progressively apparent that the “Grand Old Party” is becoming an unsustainable model, and it’s going to need a conservative ground-up overhaul if it is to remain a viable entity in the future of our state and nation.
The problem with Washington is that most people go there for two reasons: to lobby or get lobbied. As Washington’s power grows, lobbying becomes more important, and it has become the nation’s biggest business. Six of the 10 richest counties in the nation now surround Washington, D.C., and every restaurant teems with politicians and lobbyists plying their trades. Because of this, the grassroots is barely acknowledged in the Capitol – by Democrats or Republicans, as reflected by “establishment class” Republicans like Speaker Boehner, and Senators McCain and Graham. They are more interested in keeping the status quo, and their dinner parties, than fighting for “Republican” principles and risking upsetting the D.C. applecart. In fact, they are willing to join their Democrat colleagues to try and stop conservatives who would try act on their party’s platform.
“Lobbying back” is almost impossible for grassroots-level activists – the amounts of money spent to win Washington’s favor are just too massive to compete with. And challenges to incumbents at election time are not tolerated by the Republican Party at large. Such challenges are left frustrated, and even punished, by the party bosses.
There are problems ahead for the California Republican Party, as well. While the new class of officers elected to CRP leadership offer promises, they still face significant uphill battles. Beyond digging the party out of financial insolvency, they face a recruitment-deficit that one election cycle alone will not be able to remedy.
But that is hardly the biggest problem facing Republican candidates for statewide office. The brand itself has become badly tarnished. For more than two generations, the Democratic Party has been highly successful in permanently staining the word “Republican” for a majority of California voters – so much so that in a growing number of neighborhoods, regardless of how much the voter agrees with a candidate, being known as a Republican can lose them almost 10 points – instantly – to their Democratic opponent. It’s a problem that will keep the party a super-minority unless one of two things happens: either the Democrats manage to make themselves so unpopular that Republicans become “the lesser of two evils,” or there’s a conservative revival that completely shifts the balance of power within the two parties.
Some think the fix is to gut the Republican Party of most of its policies, and evolve the brand into a “less extreme” Democratic Party, but such a thought is abhorrent to conservatives who understand that our policies work if and when they are tried. The trick is winning the hearts of the voters. But how do we get in the door? We need to get local.
First, it has be acknowledged, that for all the screaming conservatives do about how much we want small and local government, we spend a pitiful amount of time participating in it. As important as the goings-on of the Beltway are, more so are the meetings of your City Council – and the need for good civic leadership grows stronger as poor past administrations leave many cities and counties on the brink of total budget collapse.
Keeping our schools open, streets paved, and fire and police services available and promoting a thriving local economy are issues that most everyone can agree on, and good administration of these issues is inherently conservative. Campaigning on these essentials is a winner for candidates. And entering this foray is relatively easy for principled, yet inexperienced, political upstarts. The task is made simpler by the complete elimination of party labels – it’s just you, the voter, and the common challenges facing your community. You would think conservatives would be all over the issue just for that fact alone!
It’s not a concession of the national or statewide debate, but you can’t keep throwing amateurs, no matter how principled, at the best and most powerful political machines in history and expect to come out on top. Tea Party groups across the nation are actively working to engage and train a new class of candidates for all areas of local government. Our goal is to continue expanding those efforts – electing a new generation of leaders who will get to be known and trusted by their communities on the tough issues of our day and preparing them for future higher office.
We need to rebuild from the ground up. The path forward and upward for a new conservative movement is one city, one county, one state at a time.
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Robert Jeffers is a coordinator with the Central Coast Freedom Rallies and co-founder of NF-Watch, a project to help local government find and eliminate waste.