“I’ve always said that a potential Achilles heel for the Tea Party movement is the presidential election, because the power of the Tea Party movement comes from its leaderlessness, and if one guy screws up, we just kick them out and move on, because you’re not really dependent on one leader to always get it right. When it comes to selecting a nominee for president to run against Obama, you ultimately are stuck with one guy, right? Or one lady. So I don’t know how that works itself out.”
I argued this in June of 2011, in an interview published in the Huffington Post. I was worried at the time about the real potential of Republicans nominating another John McCain – the next guy in line after a long string of big government Republicans – and how that might undermine our continued success in electoral politics.
The 2010 elections were essentially a policy referendum on a few defining economic issues: health care, bailouts, spending money we didn’t have, and too much intrusive government. It was an issues-based election with two clearly-defined, competing visions. The historic results were a clear rebuke of the Obama agenda, and defined public opinion moving forward. Today, ObamaCare is more unpopular than it was in November 2010. “Stimulus” is a dirty word banned from Democrats’ political lexicon, synonymous with wasteful spending.
And yet in 2012, the presidential race was a personality contest, with Barack Obama successfully trashing the reputation of a decidedly decent man. But who’s to blame for that? For the President, going “All Chicago” was a smart move. He could not run on the economy, because incumbents lose in a bad economy. He could not run on policy accomplishments, because his policies were political losers. But the selection of Mitt Romney took many of those issues off the table.
Romney was essentially the architect of the ObamaCare model when he was governor of Massachusetts, and that took our most potent policy divergence with the President off the table. The press pointed this out ad nauseam. Unfortunately, the Romney campaign handled this conundrum in the worst possible way, notably snatching defeat from the jaws of victory when the progressive super PAC Priorities USA ran a ridiculous ad essentially accusing Romney of being a killer.
The ad told the story of a steelworker, laid off by Bain Capital, whose resulting lack of health insurance led to his wife’s death from cancer. The story was, of course, completely skewed, and even the mainstream press was calling out the lies. The Romney campaign’s response? Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul: “if people had been in Massachusetts, under Governor Romney’s health care plan, they would have had health care.” All of the lies and distortions of the left’s ad were swept away, content instead with the Romney campaign’s defense of government-run health care. Romney never backed away from this staffer’s comment.
On energy, Obama gleefully pointed out to voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania Mitt Romney’s past words that sure sounded a lot like “a war on coal.” Even on spending, it was hard to find any specifics that distinguished the challenger from the status quo.
The two bright spots of the Romney campaign – the selection of Paul Ryan and the first debate – quickly faded as the campaign reverted to a risk averse, policy-light strategy. Ryan was put in the back seat, his policy roadmap ignored. The aggressiveness and clarity of Romney in the first debate was quickly replaced by a risk-averse stance and a five point “economic plan” that said very little about anything.
With few substantive policy distinctions between the two candidates, it became a beauty contest. And Republicans don’t win beauty contests; they win on issues.
So the top of the ticket did, in fact, become our Achilles’ heel. Not that there was a clearly better option. Our movement has repopulated the Republican Party with rising stars like Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Scott Walker, but all were too green to launch a run for President in 2010. Other options, like Paul Ryan, Mitch Daniels, or Mike Pence, chose not to run in 2012. Fortunately, we will clearly not have a dearth of talent in 2016, and we will not have to settle for the next old white guy from the Republican establishment, standing in the queue, expecting to be coronated. In the next fight for the White House, our talent pool runs deep.
But in 2011, we did not have that leader, so FreedomWorks devised a strategy based on driving turnout in the battleground states for compelling Senate candidates. It didn’t work. Some of our candidates were not that compelling. Some made dumb mistakes. Many were exceptional, but swam against the current of a lackluster Presidential campaign. The first, best explanation of our loses has to be the drag at the top of the ballot. While some votes remain to be counted, as of today, Mitt Romney actually won 1.7 million fewer votes than John McCain in 2008, and a staggering 3.8 million fewer than George W. Bush in 2004.
I don’t regret the strategy of driving up-ballot voting through our Senate candidates because it was the best plan available. But it wasn’t enough. We didn’t get the job done. What’s telling is that Senate Republicans underperformed across the board. For all of the focus on Richard Mourdock’s self-inflicted (and fatal) wound, far more “establishment” candidates failed in what should have been easy pickups. Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin lost by 5.6 points. Rick Berg in North Dakota barely lost what should have been an easy win. Heather Wilson in New Mexico lost by 5.6 points. Denny Rehberg lost Montana by 3.9 points. The list goes on.
The upside to the downside was in the House of Representatives. After the historic gain of 63 seats in 2010 – fueled by an agenda of individual freedom and fiscal responsibility – we held our own, losing only two of the seats gained during the midterm elections. That, in and of itself, should be news, particularly considering the underperformance up the ticket. More interesting is the net gain of solid fiscal conservatives in the House. Of the 75 House members we endorsed, 65 won (with one runoff election still to be decided on December 1st). Sadly, we lost some of our favorites, like Joe Walsh and Allen West (both running in difficult, new districts), and Mia Love in a heartbreakingly close loss. But the 5 we lost were replaced by 8 new pickups, for a net increase of 3 fiscally conservative champions in the House.
Remember that the DCCC strategy was all about Tea Party issues and the vote for the Ryan budget. Democrats, led by Nancy Pelosi, were going to make the balanced budget plan, including reforms to entitlements like Medicare, the albatross around Republican candidates’ necks. It didn’t work. Not at all. “Mediscare” is now dead as the go-to tactic of House Democrats, and it will likely cost Nancy Pelosi her top perch in Democratic leadership.
Lesson learned: Republicans win with thoughtful messaging based on economic opportunity, individual freedom, and fiscal responsibility. Indeed, many Democrats successfully (if not authentically) ran on these messages. Claire McCaskill discovered her inner opposition to earmarks in Missouri, and Joe Donnelly ran against tax-and-spend big government in Indiana. Go figure.
FreedomWorks will be conducting an exhaustive analysis on this election’s turnout, as we dig deeper into the numbers. I've already heard from some of our supporters who want to help. Please let me know if you have ideas you want us to explore.
As we prepare to pick ourselves up and reengage in defense of the ideas and values that make America exceptional, realize that our community has a tremendous set of new assets and tools. We have a stronger Freedom Caucus in both the House and the Senate. Outside the Beltway, our community is both bigger and more sophisticated than it was in November 2010. One indicator is FreedomWorks itself. FreedomWorks alone has grown exponentially since 2010. According to Xperedon Charity News, we are now the largest Facebook community of any nonprofit, with 3.8 million members and growing. An independent analysis by Open Secrets shows that our super PAC, FreedomWorks for America, is fundamentally different than anything else right of center. It is comprised of a broad base of over 50,000 donors, and functions as a service center for our community.
These data points are just the tip of the iceberg. What I personally witnessed in the months leading up to the elections was really like nothing I’ve seen before. For instance, our FreePAC events in Dallas, Cincinnati, Orlando, Phoenix, Chicago and Columbus attracted an amazing 36,000 attendees, and another 92,000 viewers online. The beauty of our bottom-up model is that we come out of every battle, every event, every Facebook post, and every email with a bigger, stronger, more connected community.
And the strength of our community, bound by a set of values, is everything. The key moving forward is community. It is the only asset that outlasts the last election’s results, or ticket sales for the previous event. And it certainly outlasts the wall-to-wall barrage of TV ads that cost hundreds of millions of dollars, with little to show for it the day after. What we do next is all about leveraging and building our community yet again.
Much has been made of the demographic divide between “us” and “them.” This way of thinking has always made me uncomfortable. I don’t like dividing people based on race, or gender, or age, or religion, or lineage. We believe in the timeless principles of justice that treats everyone exactly like everyone else under the laws of the land. Or, as Dr. King put it, we judge people based on the content of their character, not the color of their skin. This logic is the basis of our Black & White Tour, where Deneen Borelli and I argue that freedom is, well, black and white. We plan to add FreedomWorks’ Pennsylvania Director Ana Puig to the tour next. I suppose her Brazilian heritage would now make it the Black, White & Brown tour?
This color-blind thinking, by the way, has repopulated the Republican Party with a rainbow of young men and women who have one very important thing in common: a belief in individual freedom, fiscal responsibility, and the idea that America’s greatness comes from its people, not the government. Think Ted Cruz, Tim Scott, Nikki Haley, Marco Rubio, Deb Fischer, Raul Labrador, Mia Love, Justin Amash, and Allen West. We didn’t set out to engineer diversity from the top down, but that’s how freedom works. For all of their supposed fealty to diversity, it is interesting to watch the Democrats and progressive big money interests unleash the full fury of their machine against Mia Love and Allen West. Tolerance, it seems, does not include the right to be a young, black, Mormon, female Republican with ties to the Tea Party. But don’t worry. Mia will be back, just like the rest of us.
We will immediately be taking on some very important fights: the fiscal cliff, a massive automatic tax increase, and another increase in the debt ceiling. I hope that, before House Republicans start negotiating with themselves, they wait for the President and Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid (who still hasn’t passed a budget resolution in 3+ years) to put their specifics on the table. The Ryan budget is a clear benchmark, but the specifics are everything when it comes to tax and entitlement reform, and the burden is on the Democrats to show their cards.
The battle against ObamaCare now shifts to the states. We must continue to fight the bureaucratic exchanges and the Medicaid expansion at the state level, while working to keep House Republicans united behind an anti-government-takeover strategy. We will fall back to guerrilla tactics to try to slow and weaken the government takeover, with an eye to reversing it over a number of years. We will consider expanding our efforts to challenge ObamaCare’s implementation through litigation. The fight is far from over.
But the bigger challenges for our community go beyond any specific legislative battle. It gets down to education, and our launch of FreedomWorks University is just the beginning of that process. We need to connect with what I call the “Ron Paul Millennials” who are clearly compelled by the ideas of liberty. And yes, we are going to Black and Latino communities as well.
Are you willing to show up for the future of America, even when faced with disappointing results? I’ve suffered my share of defeats and disappointments, and I can tell you that every setback has been followed by a greater opportunity. The bitter disappointment of 1992 led to the revolution of 1994. A Republican President who “abandoned the free market to save it” in 2008 led to a million plus people on the National Mall on September 12th, 2009.
I’m staying. Finishing what we started. Our movement is built on tenacity, hard work, good spirit, and a little faith. I can’t imagine doing anything else.
President & CEO