New Hope for the GOP?

Two weeks ago, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana made news by telling the Republican National Committee it was time for the GOP to “stop being the stupid party.” He urged Republicans to “stop insulting the intelligence of voters” and pointed out that “we had a number of Republicans damage the brand this year with offensive and bizarre comments.”

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Saturday, the Oregon Republican Central Committee may have unwittingly followed Jindal’s advice when members elected Suzanne Gallagheras the party’s new state chairwoman.

That’s not to suggest that either of her opponents, Clackamas County GOP Chairman John Lee Jr. or two-time 4th Congressional District Republican nominee Art Robinson, are stupid or have engaged in the kind of rhetoric to which Jindal was referring. But it was Gallagher who emphasized the party’s need to improve its messaging and become more inclusive. More important, as a comparatively fresh face (she’s run unsuccessfully for the Legislature twice in the past decade in heavily Democratic districts), Gallagher may have the best chance of pulling this off.

Even before the vote, Gallagher insisted that she would not try to change the party’s platform, which is smart. The platform reflects the work of the conservatives who form the backbone of the party’s grass-roots efforts. Those workers care about the party platform. They may, in fact, be the only ones who do.

The reality is that party platforms are not binding on candidates, few of whom even read them (I know I never did). Years ago, Oregon Democrats went through a period when their state conventions were dominated by delegates who inserted planks in the platform on controversial subjects, such as legalizing prostitution and banning all logging on public lands. Yet as hard as Republicans tried to tie those planks to specific Democratic candidates, it never worked. Voters understood that they were electing candidates, not platforms.

What is critical going forward is that the party reflects the diversity of opinion that exists among Republican officeholders, candidates and voters. As long as the public believes that the Republican Party represents a single ideology, then the next crackpot statement by a congressional candidate in Missouri or Indiana or wherever will give Republicans in Oregon a black eye, too. And the reality is, we do represent diverse opinions, backgrounds and experience. Now is the time to shine a light on that.

I’m old enough to remember Barry Goldwater’s landslide defeat in the presidential election of 1964, which forced many conservatives to abandon their long-held belief that previous Republican losses resulted from their nominating moderate “me-too” candidates who refused to offer a bold contrast to the prevailing liberal orthodoxy of the Democrats. In nominating Goldwater, Republicans finally offered voters “a choice, not an echo.” The voters’ answer was a resounding, “No, thanks.”

Just two years later, the Republican comeback featured three newly elected moderate Republicans to the U.S. Senate, including Mark Hatfield of Oregon, Charles Percy of Illinois and Howard Baker of Tennessee. But that same year, a conservative Republican by the name of Ronald Reagan also turned a 1.3 million vote defeat for Goldwater two years earlier into a million-vote victory over incumbent Gov. Pat Brown (father of the current California governor, Jerry Brown).

Reagan became an apostle for party unity. He adopted what he called the Eleventh Commandment (“Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican”) and was a proponent of the “Big Tent,” referring to a political party with room for people of all persuasions who were willing to support their fellow party members in return.

That’s the attitude Oregon Republicans need to reclaim. Candidates who can compete in Washington County and Lane County are likely to be different from the candidates elected in Klamath County or Grant County.

Oregon Democrats understand this. That’s why they’ve held the House seat in Coos Bay with excellent local candidates such as Joanne Verger, Arnie Roblan and Caddy McKeown during the same 12-year period that Coos County voted for George W. Bush (twice), John McCain and George Romney. There are other unlikely legislative districts that Democrats consistently hold because they nominate the right candidates. I can’t think of similar seats consistently won by Republicans today.

Here’s hoping that’s something Suzanne Gallagher can help change.

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