How Republicans reclaimed the middle in 2009 elections

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Governors-elect Bob McDonnell (VA) and Chris Christie (NJ) proved last night that the moderate/centrist wing of the GOP is not dead. Republicans beat independents 2 to 1 in Virginia and did about the same in New Jersey.

This should send a strong message to the White House and to Democrats. There is an “angry middle” out there that is unhappy with what it has seen in the first 10 months of the Obama administration.

But these elections should also prove that the so-called “right wing” of the GOP is not as powerful as everyone thinks, which also explains the results in the special election of New York’s 23rd congressional district, where Democrat Bill Owens overtook a conservative GOP opponent.

In fact, the results in New York 23 show that although the conservative candidate made strong inroads, he was defeated by a Democrat in a district that had been held by Republicans for 100 years. I think this is something that the national Republican party should pay keen attention to as they head into the 2010 election cycle. It is a mistake to run Republican standard bearer candidates out of office just because they are socially moderate and replace them with more conservative Republican candidates. This might work in the southeast or southwest, but it does not work in the Northeast or in New England.

Take for example the campaign that Bob McDonnell ran in Virginia. Bob ran as a pro-growth, pro-transportation, and pro-business Republican. He even attracted the devoted support of former BET Chairman Sheila Johnson, who resides in Republican-leaning Loudoun County, Virginia as I do. McDonnell did not run as the pro-life, pro-gun, anti-gay marriage, very conservative Christian man that he is.

McDonnell was so acutely aware that he had to run to the political center in this campaign that when Creigh Deeds started to attack him over a 23-year-old thesis that he wrote about the roles of women and how he felt it was more important for them to stay home and rear families, McDonnell swiftly sidestepped the issue, responded and ran ads which featured his college educated daughters and wife all of whom are accomplished women.

In New Jersey, Christie understood that the corruption and scandals in that state’s politics had reached a crescendo and ran as a law and order type governor who would restore New Jersey’s fiscal and moral house. Socially moderate and fiscally conservative, Christie is very similar to his two GOP predecessors, Governor Tom Kean in the 1980s and Gov. Christie Whitman in the 1990s. Those are the only kind of Republicans that win in the Northeast.

So what does all of this mean as we head into 2010?

What it means is that the successful Republican candidates of 2009 figured out how to win by moving away from socially divisive issues like gay marriage, abortion, and religion, instead choosing to focus on pocket book issues like job creation, lower taxes, and transportation needs. If this is the kind of Republican Party that emerges from the rubble as we head in the 2010 election cycle then the GOP may be headed towards a new political birth of sorts, while the Democrats should start to become very worried.

My unsolicited advice to the president is that he starts to move away from the left fringe of his party and move toward the middle as Bill Clinton did in the mid 1990s after the Democrats were defeated in the 1994 elections. The good news for the president is that he is getting a chance to adjust before he loses the majority in the Congress. I hope he takes heed and makes that correction now.