Let’s Talk About How to Get Republicans Elected

There are many Republican organizations across the country and many find themselves in entirely new territory. Gone are the days when Republicans controlled everything. The last two elections have led to Republicans being swept from power. Now, the rebuilding must begin.

GOPAC is one of the organizations focused on recruiting Republican candidates to run races at the state and local level. In an interview with GOPAC’s new chairman, Frank Donatelli, I asked him a number of questions on how the Republican Party can get back on track. Donatelli believes that “as long as we are offering private sector, free market alternatives to Obama’s big government programs,” Republican prospects are “very bright indeed.”

First, a little background. Frank Donatelli most recently served as the Deputy Chairman of the Republican National Committee during the 2008 presidential elections. His previous appointments have included serving as an Assistant to President Ronald Reagan for Political and Intergovernmental Affairs and as Deputy Assistant to the President for Public Liaison at the White House. Mr. Donatelli served on White House Chief of Staff James Baker’s team that negotiated the 1984 presidential debates, a role he reprised as a Senior Advisor to Bob Dole in 1996. He was also a Regional Political Director for Ronald Reagan and was active in the presidential campaigns of George H.W. Bush.

Eberle — Most people do not know much about GOPAC, so let’s start with telling me about GOPAC’s mission.

Donatelli — GOPAC was founded to create a stronger bench of young Republicans at the state and local level, rising stars capable of running for higher office when the opportunity presents itself. When you remember that the president of the United States was in the Illinois legislature five years ago, it’s clear that the wait time for promising Republican leaders to move up is not nearly as long as it used to be.

Our motto is simple: GOPAC supports good candidates running good campaigns with good ideas. We are well known for our candidate recruitment and training. We want to increase our messaging assistance to candidates this cycle to help them talk about issues that are of most concern to voters such as health care, education, infrastructure and energy security, issues where Republicans have innovative, free market ideas but have not effectively communicated them to the American people.

We are also in search of strong Republican candidates from constituencies where we haven’t done well recently, women, young voters, Hispanics, and suburban voters. We want to establish voting strength in so called “blue” states where we need to increase our party’s reach. Finally, since these will be the last elections prior to redistricting, we are looking to increase the number of state legislative chambers controlled by Republicans.

Eberle — The Republican Party is in a general state of soul-searching right now… looking for the proper strategy, message, etc. to get back in the winning column. What do you think happened in 2006 and 2008 (and even earlier) to bring us to this point?

Donatelli — It was the perfect storm. The Bush Administration was not popular after Katrina and especially after the economic meltdown of September, 2008. The GOP Congress suffered from scandal and corruption among some members in 06. Finally, we were not true to our longstanding principles, especially for a smaller, leaner government. We not only lost elections, but we also lost our way.

Eberle — I absolutely agree with you… so how do we do it? How do we get back on track? We have people like Colin Powell and others who say the party has drifted too far to the right? How do you respond to that?

Donatelli — First, you take advantage of what the opposition gives you and the Obama Administration is giving us lots of room to reclaim the mantle of fiscal discipline. His multi year budget is truly frightening: huge tax increases, defense spending cuts, no entitlement reform, rosy economic scenarios, and still $500 to $700 billion annual deficits as far as the eye can see. We can certainly do better than that.

I also think that we have to put forward real alternatives so the American people can compare what we are offering with the Obama policies. Sen. McConnell and Leader Boehner have done a very good job of keeping Republicans together. We have offered alternatives to the Administration’s stimulus bill and energy proposals and we will offer a patient driven free market health care bill that focuses on lowering costs, not forcing everyone into a government run plan. I strongly believe that we can offer a world where American families have more choices and enhanced opportunities as opposed to liberal Democrats who want to empower bureaucrats and punish success.

I am a strong believer in welcoming converts of all stripes to our party, but historically we are the party of less government and lower taxes. As such, we should look to rebuild the center-right coalition that existed during the Reagan years.

Eberle — In a recent column by David Limbaugh, he quotes an August 2008 Battleground Poll where 60% of Americans identify themselves as conservative. Only 36% identify themselves as liberal. Yet, in party identification, Democrats beat Republicans 35% to 21%. It seems like the coalition is there to be built. Why are people identifying themselves as conservatives but not rallying to the Republican cause? Does this indicate that people may be looking for a third party?

Donatelli — We have to be a little careful here. The conservative label has always been far more popular than the liberal label and “conservative” has outdrawn both the Republican and Democratic labels. Some conservatives are “life style” conservatives who just want to be left alone and are either not politically active or even registered Democrats in some parts of the country. NEVERTHELESS, we are clearly underperforming as a party in our ability to attract conservative and moderate voters and the availability of such a large self identified conservative block is the main reason why I believe our party will do well in 2010 and will make a comeback if we can reattach ourselves to common sense limited government solutions that gives choices to American families, not government bureaucrats.

Eberle — When we talk about message and educating the American public to vote Republican, we are facing an incredible challenge now. The media were never on our side. When we were in the majority, it was our bills that were being voted up or down. So, we had key legislators and spokespeople talking about them. Now, the Democrats can ram anything through Congress that they want. We can offer alternatives, but just based on numbers, they will get voted down. So, how do we let the American people know what the Republican Party is doing?

Donatelli — It is clearly a challenge. We are in the minority and hence we’ll have trouble gaining traction for our proposals. However, we do have a set of conservative media outlets, including GOPUSA that we can work with. It’s very important that we go through the exercise of offering alternatives. Not only will it help to clarify the thinking of our party, but we will have a second chance to present them when the public begins to look for alternatives to what this Administration is offering.

Eberle — Obama has made a direct assault on social issues from abortion funding to embryonic stem cells to even cutting school choice in DC. In building this center-right coalition that was so successful in the past, how do you address the needs of social conservatives?

Donatelli — Social conservatives are an important part of our party and that should not change in the future. We have been a pro life party since Reagan’s first election and I see no reason why that would or should change. We should not be interested in replacing the right with the center. Rather, we want to ADD the center to the right. We have much more in common than the groups that composed Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, for instance, which included big city political machines, labor unions, minority voters, and Southern segregationists. We’ll have some differences to be sure, but there is absolutely no reason why social conservatives, libertarians, second amendment advocates, and yes, moderates, can’t work together to advance a common agenda.

Eberle — What do you see as the main obstacles to returning the GOP to a majority in Congress and to electing a Republican president?

Donatelli — GOPAC focuses on state and local elections, but it’s clear that if we have strong candidates available to run for the House and Senate when opportunities present themselves, our ability to win more seats in Congress increases dramatically. Also, remember that electoral success in so called “blue” states might very well be easier at the state or local level rather than in senate or presidential races. Incremental successes can then be followed by state wins. Finally, many outstanding issue solutions and governing ideas first tried at the state level eventually make their way to Washington and become national proposals. All of these electoral and policy successes will translate into a stronger and more vibrant Republican Party.

Eberle — How do you think the Republican Party will do in the 2010 elections?

Donatelli — History, economics and logic tell us that our party will do very well. We have to forget all of the difficulties and frustrations of the last two cycles. Democrats are now in charge of the national government and they will and should be held accountable for the State of the Union. Economics and logic tell us that you can’t spend your way to prosperity, that government doesn’t create wealth, it only redistributes it, and that raising taxes in the middle of a recession makes no economic sense. The Administration is pursuing policies that will make it more difficult for the economy to recover. As long as we are offering private sector, free market alternatives to Obama’s big government programs, I believe our prospects are very bright indeed.

Eberle — Just one last question for our readers, since I know you need to go… What was it like working for President Reagan?

Donatelli — It was a special time for our country. Working in any White House involves long hours, many frustrations, and family sacrifice. In return, you hope that the president you are working for is doing great things for our country. We never had any doubt that Ronald Reagan was such a president. He revitalized our economy, won the Cold War, and made America believe in itself again. As Reagan himself said in his Farewell Address to the American people, “Not bad. Not bad at all.”