Beware populists in sheeps clothing

I have long argued that conservatives need to be strategic in their thinking when it comes to elections. While I will fully admit that balancing “the most electable” with “the most conservative” is rarely easy it is still a critical decision to make. “Throw all the bums out” is not a wise strategy for regaining the majority or implementing conservative policy.

This has recently been driven home to me as various groups, personalities, and candidates seek to use the Tea Parties, and other populist sentiments, to push their own agenda; an agenda that I think hurts both the GOP and efforts at conservative governance.

One example in particular stands out: Bay Buchanan, Tom Ganley and the attacks on Rob Portman. Portman and Ganley are competing for the Republican nomination for the Ohio US Senate seat open with the retirement of George Voinovich.

Portman is a former Congressman, US Trade Representative, and OMB Director. Ganley is highly successful auto dealer in the Cleveland area. To put it bluntly, the only reason Ganley is a part of this equation is the assertion, or threat depending on your perspective, that he is willing to spend $7 million dollars; most of it his own money.

Now there are problems with this scenario (more on that below), but recently Bay Buchanan has entered the fray in an attempt to make this an ideological battle. We would do well to ignore her advice and be suspicious about her motives.

Rather long rant argument follows below.

As I noted at the start, I believe that the goal of conservative Republicans is to recruit and support the most electable conservative candidate in each race. Depending on the district, the political situation on the ground, and the general mood of the country this can range from quite conservative to sometimes annoyingly squishy center-right. It is those borderline races that present the most challenge; how much is to gain from getting an R as opposed to seeing a solid conservative run and lose, etc.

When it comes to the Ohio Senate race, however, I don’t think this is particularly tough choice. Read this Human Events article I wrote profiling Rob Portman. I have spoken directly with Portman on numerous occasions and have heard him speak to a variety of audiences. He is a conservative.

And he is rightly focused on THE issue of this election: jobs. What people care about right now is getting the economy on track and creating jobs. President Obama and Congressional Democrats have sold the public a bill of goods promising that all of their big government spending and regulations will produce growth. With the failure of the stimulus package voters are already beginning to understand that this is a bait and switch. The GOP needs candidates who can convince these voters to vote for them in this environment.

Portman has been making that case. He opposes the health care reforms currently being offered by Democrats in Congress; he has come out against Cap and Trade as a devastating tax and job killer; he has blasted the Democrats for “spending what we don’t have on what we don’t need.” He has been all over the state talking to voters; Republicans, Democrats, and Independents.

Portman has also proven himself to be a very effective fundraiser. Last quarter he raised over $3.4 million – more than both the Democratic candidates combined – and soon I expect he will announce another great quarter.

What has Ganley done? Well, as far as I can see very little. He has spoken to a couple of Tea Party events but hasn’t been actively campaigning as far as I can tell. He has finally managed to file his financial disclosure forms, however, and they reveal that his promise of spending $7 million dollars on this race seem farfetched. He simply doesn’t have the liquidity necessary to spend that kind of money.

He has not shown the ability to raise the money either. He currently has $88,000 on hand and no one expects a big number from the campaign when quarterly reports come out this week.
So what does Ganley have going for him? The only thing he has is hopes of leveraging populist and anti-establishment anger in an attempt to go from political novice to US Senator. Enter Bay Buchanan.

Here is what she had to say in a recent Human Events column:

Between the town hall meetings and the tea party rallies, millions of Americans are taking to the streets to protest a government gone berserk. They are angry and determined to take their country back. But there are snakes in the grass intent on using this movement to return to power, not the people, but the Republican establishment. If this happens we lose everything, including our country.

To succeed, the rebellion must produce candidates with fresh faces–populists who share our outrage for the arrogance of Washington, individuals who will fight for American workers and American families. We need primaries to nominate candidates that aren’t owned by party leaders, powerful special interests, nor Corporate America.

She then tries to apply this to the Senate race in Ohio:

In Ohio, Rob Portman, a former pro-amnesty congressman and Bush trade rep, announced his bid for the U.S. Senate earlier this year. Then Tom Ganley, a conservative businessman from Cleveland infuriated by the massive uncontrolled spending of Washington, decided to run. Mortal sin, declared the party, which told this self-made successful businessman to get out of the race, that “the U.S. Senate isn’t an entry level position.” The NRSC endorsed Portman and are in full campaign mode. (Do these nitwits really think one of the architects of the Bush policy that sent our jobs overseas is going to win the general election in a state with 11% unemployment?)

Buchanan has continued to hurl these inaccurate and off-base charges in emails through the Team American PAC she co-chairs with Tom Tancredo.

First off, Portman is not pro-amnesty. He hasn’t voted for amnesty and has flatly stated that he is against it. And furthermore, Portman wasn’t even in Congress when so called amnesty bills like Bush-McCain (2007) or Kennedy-McCain (2005) were introduced and debated.

Second of all, Buchanan, and her protectionist cohorts, shouldn’t buy into the leftist rhetoric about “sending jobs overseas.” US Trade increased under Portman’s leadership and this meant more growth and more jobs in Ohio and around the country. (Also worth noting: Ganley makes the most money off of selling foreign cars. How exactly does this fit in with Buchanan’s populist protectionist rhetoric?)

Lastly, why exactly should Ganley suddenly deserve conservative support? What has he done to earn our trust and confidence? Has he been active in local and state politics? Has he supported other conservative candidates and issues in the past? Is the US Senate really the best use of his resources and talents? Would he be an effective leader in the Senate? I think the clear answer to all of those questions is no.

Ganley hasn’t even shown that he has garnered popular support outside of those who work for him or are loyal patrons of his car dealerships. Buchanan simply asserts that “establishment” Republicans are the enemy and that therefore we must support Ganley; and she makes up bogus charges about Portman’s record. There is no polling data, fundraising results, or campaign experience to indicate that Ganely has a chance to win statewide in Ohio against an experienced, well-know and well-funded Democrat currently serving in statewide office.

Some have suggested that a quid pro quo is going on here. Why else would Buchanan suddenly care about a primary race in Ohio, they ask. I don’t know if there were negotiations that went into the endorsement or not (I guess if she, or her networked companies, show up on the financial reports we’ll know).

But I do know this: Buchanan is calling for the destruction of the GOP in order to rebuild in her image. This is folly. It is one thing to seek to replace scandal ridden and ineffective incumbents with fresh conservative voices in those districts where they can win (or where there is little risk in the attempt).  I support that effort.

It is quite another to throw away a crucial Senate seat in a misguided attempt to stick it to the party.

Rob Portman is a conservative. He is smart, experienced, articulate, a proven fundraiser, and focused like a laser on the issues that will turn this election. Attacking him is a distraction and a strategy for remaining the minority party into the future.

Conservative Republicans should avoid at all costs the siren song of populist anger as a substitute for strategic thinking and pragmatic choices. You don’t win by losing. You win by winning.

And Rob Portman can and will win in 2010 if we don’t get distracted from the issues that matter.