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GOP can take lesson from Arkansas Senate race

You’ve likely already read that a Rasmussen poll recently found more likely voters would choose a third party Tea Party candidate than a GOP candidate if given that opportunity in next year’s congressional election.  When asked to assume the Tea Party organized as a political party, 36% said they’d choose the Democrat, 23% the would pick the Tea Party candidate, 18% would select the Republican, and 22% were undecided.

Liberals will see the results above and salivate, already tasting a split of the conservative vote.  They can point to last month’s special election in New York’s 23rd congressional district as more evidence that 2010 will be a year of infighting that will temper the historical advantage of the opposition when one party holds the White House and both houses of Congress.

In NY-23, when the GOP threw its nomination to a candidate with virtually no conservative credentials, the Tea Party mobilized to support a true conservative running as an independent in the race.  Even though the National Republican Congressional Committee spent nearly a million dollars promoting the liberal GOP candidate, she was forced from the race when polls showed her placing last in the three way race.  Democrat Bill Owens won the traditionally Republican seat, with the conservative candidate Doug Hoffman coming in a close second.

So the question is, “How can the GOP avoid the mistakes of NY-23 and win the support of the 23% who would prefer a Tea Party candidate?”

Before we can answer that question, it’s important to understand the dependence of the Tea Party on the internet and social networking sites.  The mainstream media largely ignored the protest movement as it grew and often understated the size of crowds who attended.  The movement’s growth was made possible by news spread through non-traditional sources such as blogs, conservative online news organizations, and social networking sites.  Its members work, play, socialize, and organize via the internet.  So a candidate’s ability to win the support of the Tea Party voters will largely depend on his/her ability to function in this online environment.

In Arkansas, Republican candidates for US Senate are beginning to recognize that their chances for success may hinge on their ability to win the support of Tea Partiers in the state.  This Saturday, Tea Parties across the state have teamed up with other conservative groups to sponsor a rally that will feature Michelle Malkin as keynote speaker.  But, all seven announced 2010 GOP Senate candidates and an independent running for the seat will speak at the event as well.

Last week, the Republican Party of Arkansas held an Iowa-style Straw Poll for next year’s Senate race at its annual Winter Leadership Conference.   The value of a strong Tea Party-GOP alliance was evidenced by the stronger than expected second place finish of Curtis ColemanSome had already written Coleman off, declaring State Senator Gilbert Baker the front runner who would crush all his primary opponents.

Coleman is the founder and former CEO of Safe Foods, Inc.  He’s not a politician, but a businessman who says “We are now suffering the greatest erosion of our personal liberties in history.”  He promises to do everything he can to stop that erosion if he’s elected to represent Arkansas in the US Senate.  And his message is resonating with the people of Arkansas.
In August, polls already showed Arkansas’ Democrat Senator Blanche Lincoln trailing Coleman by one point. A December 3rd Rasmussen poll now has the businessman leading the Democrat politician by 4 percent!  Though Baker was practically announced the winner of next May’s primary, Coleman finished only two points behind him in last week’s straw poll.  In a press release following the straw poll, Coleman points out several reasons the two point loss was really a win for his team:

  • The Baker campaign spent an estimated 5 times as much as our campaign did on the straw poll.
  • There is an unconfirmed report that the Baker campaign bought more than twice as many delegate tickets as our campaign.
  • About 40 of our delegates were not able to be in Hot Springs and vote in the straw poll and, based on the approximate number of total votes cast, we estimate that we placed second by only about 14 votes.
  • Approximately 80 people voted for us who were not there as one of “our” delegates.

So how has Coleman, whose name recognition was virtually non-existent at the outset of the campaign, spread his message and connected with enough Arkansans that it now looks like he could defeat the incumbent Lincoln in November?
To start with, he’s attended Tea Party events since last spring.  Coleman’s been seen shaking hands, introducing himself and telling people face-to-face what he plans to carry to Washington if elected.  He’s spoken at several of these events and connects with this group of voters who identify themselves more as conservatives than as Republicans.

When asked whether he thought the Rasmussen poll mentioned earlier spelled a GOP-3rd party split of the Republican vote, Coleman says “I’ve found that members of the TEA Party and the foundation members of the GOP are looking for the same things in a candidate: principle, passion, conviction, courage, and commitment to do far more than just win the election.  My message to the our TEA Party supporters is the same as to our Republican supporters:  I am a conservative Republican.  Conservative first, Republican second…Members of the TEA Party and the Republican Party agree on this:  we are much stronger united than divided.

Coleman is capitalizing on the fact that Tea Party and GOP voters can soundly defeat the Democrats next year, if they can become allies.  Remember, a combined Tea Party/GOP candidate takes 41% vs. Democrats’ 36% in the Rasmussen poll.  In fact Coleman states, “I think the TEA Party can strengthen the GOP, but– to a large degree – that’s up to the GOP.

In other words, not just any GOP candidate is guaranteed the support of Tea Party voters.  The NY-23 congressional race discussed above proves his point.  The Republican Party can’t count on voters’ dissatisfaction with Democrats to win votes, but must enlist candidates who satisfy the demands of conservatism, responsibility, and accountability to bring Tea Party voters into the GOP camp.

Coleman also recognized, early on, the benefits of a strong internet presence.  With the mainstream media fawning over every Socialist turn taken by the Obama administration, there was little airtime available for coverage of a largely unknown upstart candidate for US Senate in Arkansas.  Coleman compensated by taking his campaign to the internet from the start.  He says, “The internet and its related social media have certainly given us the opportunity to build state and national name ID that probably would not have been possible otherwise, and therefore have facilitated our critical grass-roots organizational efforts.

His campaign was still in its exploratory committee stage when he made his first post on his blog.  He’s diligently updated his blog since then, posting a total of 44 articles while maintaining a busy campaign schedule traveling to all corners of the state for the more traditional campaigning methods of stump speeches and handshakes.  But his blog is only part of his online strategy.

He’s also discovered the tremendous value of social networking sites in today’s political campaign.  He’s active on Facebook and Twitter, often posting into the wee hours of the morning.  One young supporter who traveled to Hot Springs from Malvern for last week’s straw poll was heard saying, “The reason I’m supporting you is because you’re so accessible,” speaking of their Facebook correspondence.  He responds to emails personally, and often at hours when most people are snugly tucked in their beds.

Though some of his GOP opponents have made use of the internet and Tea Party to a lesser degree, and most now seem to be ramping up their presence in these arenas, Curtis Coleman has been building his grassroots base on the internet nearly from day one.  His strategy seems to be paying off after defying formiddable odds in the straw poll last week.

The Republican Party needs to pay attention to what’s happening in Arkansas.  New York showed us what will happen if the GOP simply hopes to exploit the Tea Party and depend on a nominating process that has failed the party miserably.  This Arkansas Senate race is showing what can happen if the party actually embraces the ideas of the movement, welcomes them into the fold, and uses the internet to get its message out in spite of a mainstream media hell bent on furthering the Democrat agenda.

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December 12, 2009 Posted by | Election 2010 | , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments