GOP Challenges Loom, Strategist Says

This past week was a big one for Republicans: Scott Brown turned a Senate seat red in the true-blue state of Massachusetts; two new Republican governors took over state houses long run by Democrats; and President Obama's health care plan appears to have stalled. GOP strategist Mark McKinnon tells host Guy Raz that those developments have Republicans crowing, but the party still faces challenges going into this fall's midterm elections. A big one: the rise of the Tea Party protest vote.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

GUY RAZ, host:

Either way, Republicans are interpreting last week's victory in Massachusetts as a preview for their fortunes this fall. Here's Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Senator MITCH McCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky; Senate Minority Leader): This was in many ways a national referendum, principally on the major issue we're wrestling with here in the Congress, which is whether or not the government should take over one-sixth of our economy, slash Medicare about half a trillion dollars, raise taxes by half a trillion dollars and drive insurance rates up for most of the rest of our country.

RAZ: I spoke with Mark McKinnon, a Republican strategist and adviser to the campaigns of former President George W. Bush. He said a Republican comeback, written off just a few months ago, is a real possibility, but he acknowledged that 10 months is a lifetime in politics.

Mr. MARK McKINNON (Republican Strategist; Vice Chairman, Public Strategies, Inc.): Well, it is a long time, but it's rather remarkable that the Republican Party and Republican candidates have as much enthusiasm and energy as they do right now and optimism about the midterms.

So Republican strategy right now is to try and draft on the energy that's out there because there's a lot of anger and frustration among voters, and Republicans will clearly tap into that, as Scott Brown just did in Massachusetts.

RAZ: Obviously, that election in Massachusetts had an energizing effect. What do you make of the Supreme Court decision that will allow corporations to spend as much as they like on campaigns? Are Republicans looking at that as an advantage for their party?

Mr. McKINNON: I think it's a horrendous decision. It's good for big labor unions, it's good for big business, and it's lousy for voters. I think that that decision itself makes voters even angrier. I think people look and, you know, they're throwing up their arms, saying it doesn't matter what we do, some you know, the federal government in some shape, form or fashion is just going to do whatever it wants to do.

RAZ: Let's talk about the Tea Party movement for a moment because, of course, the movement poses both a challenge and an opportunity for the Republican Party. You have recently written that tea is the new Kool-Aid for Republicans.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: How does the GOP tap into that without alienating a broader range of voters?

Mr. McKINNON: Well, it's a very tricky ritual going on right now. You know, the Tea Party is a first of all, it is a significant movement, and I think the media and some pundits have tried to write it off as a bunch of cranks or something. But, in fact, it's really a very legitimate and fairly significant swath of voters out there.

It's an opportunity and a challenge for the Republican Party because most of those voters are conservatives. But the problem is for the Republican Party is that the Republican Party brand is so damaged. People - they have a lot of problems with the Republican Party, and that's why the Tea Party is getting a lot of significant traction. But the Tea Party itself goes out of its way not to identify itself as Republican. And they're quite careful about, you know, what Republicans get associated with the movement, too, although that's tricky itself, too, because it is a legitimate grassroots movement, and there's no real central organizing people or function of the Tea Party.

RAZ: Mark McKinnon, you'll recall that in the 2008 campaign, some Republican candidates for the Senate and the House actually ran images of then-candidate Obama in their ads to kind of burnish their image. Is there a sense now that Republicans will sort of begin to define themselves as the anti-Obama party?

Mr. McKINNON: I don't know. I think it might be a mistake because President Obama, despite the problems and despite the numbers of the Democratic Party, remains very popular personally. And one of the things that Scott Brown did that I hope that other Republicans will watch is that he really didn't attack President Obama himself.

He attacked the policies, and he attacked the programs. But I think he understood that, you know, a lot of America really, you know, has a pretty favorable opinion about the president, even though they don't really like what's going on.

RAZ: That's Mark McKinnon. He is a Republican strategist and vice chairman of a consulting firm called Public Strategies, Incorporated, in Austin, Texas.

Mark McKinnon, thanks for joining us.

Mr. McKINNON: Hey, thank you for having me.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.