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Isn’t 2009 More About the GOP?

Perhaps it’s my imagination, but there seems to be a lot of media discussion of how the results today in two governor’s races and one rather bizarre House race serve somehow as a referendum on Barack Obama, the Democrats, their majority, the Democratic agenda and platform, the bank bailout, the stimulus package, “HOPE,” your haircut, my haircut, the undefeated New Orleans Saints, and just about anything else that can be piled on.

OK, OK, I’m exaggerating for effect. But if the 2009 cycle is a referendum on either party, isn’t more of a referendum on the Republicans? Or perhaps, more precisely, a referendum for Republicans about the meaning of Republicanism?

Yes, elections are typically–and rightly–a referendum on the policy performance of the in-power majority party. But during an election cycle, and particularly in the primaries leading up to the general, it is the out party that is working out its issues and kinks, trying on its new or reconfigured identity. This was certainly the storyline when liberal Democrats were backing people like Ned Lamont back in 2006.

That said, consider that the GOP nominees in the three highest-profile races today–Virginia’s Bob McDonnell, New Jersey’s Chris Christie and New York 23’s Dede Scozzafava–represent three variations on the question of what ails the GOP and how to fix it. Moving from center-right to right, lets’ take a look at each model:

  1. The McDonnell model: reform the establishment GOP from within as an insider and consensus-builder who moves to the middle. McDonnell is the most conventional and establishmentarian of the three. He came up through the normal channels as a law-and-order attorney general, touted his Fairfax roots in an effort to appeal to the key swing region of Northern Virginia, avoided culture war appeals and focused on meat-and-potato issues like taxes and transportation. Granted, his avoidance of culture war politics was as much a necessity as a choice, given the potentially toxic issue of his graduate thesis controversy. But he didn’t run on a divide-and-conquer, base-oriented, Bush-era strategy. He proved able to appeal to the party’s base and middle as well as independents.
  2. The Christie model: reform the establishment GOP by running as a solid conservative. Next comes Christie, who also ran as a party man. He’s not the non-traditional conservative firebrand that Steve Lonergan, whom he beat in the GOP primary, is. But Christie isn’t Christine Todd Whitman either, and he doesn’t strike me as any less conservative than McDonnell, although he’s running in a more liberal state than McDonnell. Christie may still beat Corzine, whose background as a Goldman-Sachs millionaire is a tough sell right now. But Corzine may hold on.
  3. The Hoffman model: revolt against the establishment GOP from the outside with a third-party candidate, consequences for the GOP be damned. Hoffman may win, too, but he ran outside the GOP. Defenders will say the party’s choice of Dede Scozzafava gave him and his conservative backers no choice. But that’s not entirely true: They could have supported her and worked to move her toward their positions to earn that support. Whatever the case, the establishment choice was viewed as such an affront–an apostate–that something radical had to be done…and if that meant doing it outside the confines of the party, so be it.

No matter what, because of the Hoffman-Scozzfava dustup, Republicans will not win all three of these races. And if Christie loses, the GOP will go 1 for 3. That may be the most telling lesson of all in terms of how the party needs to re-build. Whatever the results tonight, it seems to me that 2009 is the year of the Republicans almost by definition because these contests represent a broader, intramural contest to define GOP’s future strategy and identity.

I’m not saying the the Democratic nominees, the way they ran their campaigns, or state and national issues are or were meaningless. They’re not, of course. And I’m not saying voters in these elections have no opinions about the president, or are not voicing those opinions through their votes. But 2009 is about the GOP.