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Anti-Establishment Sentiment, Economy Ring Loudly in Latest Primary Battles

September 15, 2010 at 5:08 PM EDT
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Political strategists take a closer look at what new primary results could mean for the Republican and Democratic parties as Election Day approaches.

GWEN IFILL: We take closer look at yesterday’s twists and turns with three strategists who follow them for a living: Republican Kevin Madden, Democrat Steve McMahon, and Matt Kibbe, president of the conservative advocacy group FreedomWorks and co-author of a book on Tea Party politics.

I have to start by asking you, Kevin Madden, what happened last night?

KEVIN MADDEN, Republican strategist: Well, look, I think what you saw was a very — an electorate that is very animated around sending a message to the establishment, that they were not going to send — they were basically sending a message to Washington that they weren’t going to send the same people back to Washington, career politicians.

And, at the same time, you’re looking at an electorate that is very animated, very mobilized around issues like spending and deficits. Right now, the American public is so anxious and angry at what they see out of Washington, more spending, piling up deficits, growing the size of government. At a time of a very sluggish economy, they think that those actions are stifling economic growth.

GWEN IFILL: Have mainstream Republicans been caught off guard this season?

KEVIN MADDEN: I think that they — I think that, right now, what we are is are looking at a new electorate that is sending a message, and it’s taking us a lot longer than it should have in order to get it.

GWEN IFILL: How about you, Matt Kibbe? Is that what you’ve seen happening with the Tea Party folks?

MATT KIBBE, president, FreedomWorks: Well, if you look what happened this Tuesday, it is what’s been happening all along. And it has been a message from the American people, from all of the activists that are animated on these fiscal issues, that it’s not good enough just to be a Republican. You have to actually have a record — and a credible record — on these fiscal issues.

GWEN IFILL: But we have seen this, and up until now, we have described the Tea Party as the so-called Tea Party or as this group that doesn’t really have a leader.


GWEN IFILL: Today, it’s got actually a form and a function.

MATT KIBBE: It is. And the establishment doesn’t quite get the power of this organic, networked community that has come out on these ideas. And it’s no longer about name I.D. It’s not about how much money you have in the bank. It’s whether or not you can connect with this community and turn out the vote. So, hard work and principle is defining this election cycle.

GWEN IFILL: Steve McMahon, it’s usually the Democrats who are having these kinds of problems at this stage in a campaign. What did you see happening last night?

STEVE MCMAHON, Democratic strategist: Well, I mean, it’s a problem for the Democrats that there’s all this energy on the right, but it’s also an opportunity, because one of the things that happens when you have so much energy so far on the right side of the party is, they tend to leave the middle behind.

And that is happening in at least Delaware, for sure, where the nominee now trails the Democrat by 16 points, according to a recent poll. If Mike Castle had been the nominee, he would have a double-digit lead over the Democrat. So, you saw a swing of 26 points in that race alone.

You see in Nevada Reid would have been the most vulnerable senator in the United States Senate, perhaps, but he drew a Tea Party candidate, so he’s in a race that is a dead heat, and Democrats have a great shot there — in Kentucky, the same thing.

And, in Alaska, Lisa Murkowski, who was defeated by a Tea Party candidate, may pull a Joe Lieberman and run as an independent, which I think puts that race back in play for Democrats, too. So, it cuts both ways. There’s energy on the right, but, in going so far right, the Republicans run the risk that they leave the middle behind and create opportunities for Democrats…

KEVIN MADDEN: I think the issues, though, that are mobilizing voters across the political spectrum right now are not right-left. I think what you’re looking at is a — an electorate that is very worried about the size of — the growth of government. They’re very worried about spending, and they see deficits piling up in Washington. They — they — right now, the middle…

GWEN IFILL: Excuse me. And they blame a lot of the Republicans and Democrats who are currently in Washington.

KEVIN MADDEN: Correct. Right. And what they — I think the middle right now is as — closely aligned with Tea Party sentiments. And I don’t think that — I think what happens is a big problem for Democrats right now, is that they’re deriding these folks at their own peril. I think that it’s a big — I think it becomes a big problem for them.

STEVE MCMAHON: I’m not deriding them, Kevin.

KEVIN MADDEN: It does look like a political tin ear when you say, these are extreme issues. It is not extreme to say that Washington is spending too much money and we’re piling up too many deficits.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me tell you who is deriding these folks, and that is Karl Rove, who was President Bush’s biggest strategist, who basically said last night, it is at our own peril as a party do we embrace these candidates who he basically said are less credible.

What do you do? Does that help you when, frankly, someone of Karl Rove’s stature takes after you like that?

MATT KIBBE: Well, we don’t call the Tea Party movement beautiful chaos for nothing.


MATT KIBBE: I mean, we don’t any longer take our direction from guys like Karl Rove or the Republican National Committee.

And these folks have gone right around the establishment, not just the Republican Party, but the Democratic Party as well. So, you have got to look at this more in a global picture. And I would challenge you on the idea that somehow candidates like Sharron Angle and Rand Paul are out of the mainstream.

I mean, the idea that government shouldn’t spend money it doesn’t have, the idea that government can’t and shouldn’t take over our health care system, that’s where the independent voter is today. That’s the very center of American politics. So, I do think that the Tea Party is shaking up American politics, but it’s a very health — healthy thing.

GWEN IFILL: And, today, we saw Michael Steele, the Republican National Committee chairman, and John Cornyn, who runs the Republican Senatorial Committee, start to make nice — make nice sounds about the Tea Party.

STEVE MCMAHON: Here’s the point I was trying to make. I’m not trying to deride or run down the voters in the Tea Party movement, because I think you’re right. Many independent voters are very concerned about the size of government, the amount of money that is being spent, and they’re voting on that basis.

What they don’t always appreciate or understand are some of the underlying positions of some of these candidates. So, for instance, many of these Tea Party candidates think Social Security is unconstitutional and should be repealed. At least one of them has suggested that the Civil Rights Act was unconstitutional. So, the independent voters who think Social Security is a good idea, who think Medicare is a good idea, who think the Civil Rights Act is a good idea are people who, frankly, don’t understand the depth of a lot of these positions.

The Tea Party folks run on things that are very popular, smaller government, limited government, lower taxes, things that, frankly, Democrats, Republicans, and independents, many of whom favor, but it’s the other things that make them extreme, not the — not the sort of mainstream things that they talk about every single day, which sound so…

STEVE MCMAHON: … so many people.

MATT KIBBE: But the voters — but the voters care about some simple facts, $13 trillion in debt, 10 percent unemployment, spending that is out of control, and no sense from the Washington establishment that they’re willing to do anything about these problems.

So, they’re looking for people that are going to do something.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask the question. David Chalian mentioned Jim DeMint, the happiest guy in Washington today, who endorsed all of these Tea Party candidates who won.

He was speaking to Jon Karl at ABC News today and, he said to him, “Frankly, I’m at a point where I would rather lose fighting for the right cause than win fighting for the wrong cause.”

Is that a problem for Republicans?

KEVIN MADDEN: Well, I think we have to look at what the art of the possible is. And if we are going to try and reduce the size of government, if we are going to try and stop the growth of government with health care and other parts of the big Democrat agenda, then we have to — it helps if we have a majority. It helps if we have a number of votes.

And there are simply some states where it is a challenge for somebody like Christine O’Donnell in Delaware to win that particular state, given her particular public profile and given the state’s public profile. So…

GWEN IFILL: Other examples besides Delaware?

KEVIN MADDEN: Well, I think there are other states. Look, I think we have candidates that can win in place like Washington and places like Wisconsin, because they have adequately managed their profile with those particular voters on the big issues of the day.

And that’s why we’re going to be particularly successful there. So, I think what we have to look at is, where can we win? If we’re going to build a majority in the United States Senate, let’s try and develop some candidates that can win in some of these states.

Now, I think that there is still a chance that Christine O’Donnell could win. I think there are a number of people who said, well, there’s no chance that she can even win the primary, and those people were all proven wrong last night. So, it still remains to be seen.

But I think that there is this sort of — there is a little bit of a battle right now within the Republican Party, more about the pragmatists and the purists. And there are pragmatists who think we have to get candidates that fit the unique profiles of some of these states and these electorates.

GWEN IFILL: Matt Kibbe, does that battle within the Republican Party ultimately purify it, make it a better party, a stronger party, or does it make the party — does it implode the party?

MATT KIBBE: I think it makes it stronger, if it focuses on issues that matter, and then follows through by actually implementing good public policy.

But, keep in mind, there’s been this big shakeup in the Republican primaries. And that story’s about winding down. And the next target is November 2 and Democrats that voted for a government-run health care system, who voted for a trillion dollars in unfunded stimulus money.

And you look at states like Connecticut, California, Washington, Wisconsin. These states aren’t looking quite so blue anymore. They’re starting to look purple. And some of them are looking downright red right now.

GWEN IFILL: Well, how…


GWEN IFILL: Listen to them chuckle, Steve McMahon.

STEVE MCMAHON: They’re having a big time, aren’t they?


GWEN IFILL: But here’s the great — that is the fear for you, that, in the end, the Republicans, the mainstream Republicans, the Tea Party Republicans realize it’s better if they join forces and take out the big, bad blue Democrats

in the fall. That means — that doesn’t give you even another 24 hours to giggle about last night. What do you do?

STEVE MCMAHON: Well, I mean, I think what you do is, you recognize, — and I think one of the things the Republicans are losing sight of is — and Kevin alluded to it — is, one of the reasons the Republican establishment preferred the candidates that they preferred is because they had a profile that the establishment, based on polling and research, believe fit the electorate, and believe, not the primary electorate, which is different than the general election electorate.

But one of the things that people forget sometimes when they watch these primaries is that independent voters decide general elections. The reason Barack Obama won nine states that George Bush had won previously is because independent voters voted 2-1 for Democrats.

GWEN IFILL: And the reason why Barack Obama’s poll numbers are so bad right now is that independents are going the other way.

STEVE MCMAHON: Because independent voters have started to leave Barack Obama and the Democrats.


STEVE MCMAHON: Now, the question is, when you nominate Tea Party candidates who are so — and I say extreme not as a pejorative, but the fact is, if you want to repeal Social Security, if you think the Civil Rights Act is unconstitutional, if you want to take away Medicare, most people think that’s extreme.

And those are the positions that will get independent voters back in line for Democrats. So, I actually think that, as much as — as much as, you know, people say, this is really bad news for incumbents, it’s actually not bad news for the incumbents that these Tea Party candidates are running against, because they look more moderate and they look less extreme in comparison to some of like Sharron Angle, who thinks Social Security and Medicare shouldn’t exist, or Rand Paul, who thinks the Civil Rights Act was unconstitutional.

GWEN IFILL: I get the feeling this is going to twist and turn a few more directions between now and November.

Steve McMahon, Kevin Madden, Matt Kibbe, thank you all very much.

STEVE MCMAHON: Good to be with you.