by David Safier
A few thoughts on yesterday's solid Barber victory.
All things being equal, Barber's 7 point win should be very good news for Democrats in Arizona and, by extension, across the country. But all things aren't equal, so it's hard to say what it means. Still, it gives Democrats reason to believe that 2012 isn't 2010. Hard political work and good messaging can put them in position to keep the presidency and gain back some of the ground they lost in the last election.
In 2010, Jesse Kelly came within a hair's breadth of unseating Gabby Giffords, a popular incumbent. Jesse was full bore Tea Party back then, unnuanced and militaristic, and it worked, or nearly did. But in 2012, the district is no longer in the throes of an anti-Obama backlash, and the Tea Bags have been steeped in boiling rhetoric a few times too often. They've lost flavor for more mainstream conservative voters. Kelly's team understood things were different, so they tried to soften his message and his manner. The re-messaging probably saved him from a 12 point blowout, but it wasn't enough. CD-8 almost bought what Jesse was selling in 2010, but it wasn't buying this time, even against a relatively unknown, low key opponent.
Kelly's indecision about how to present himself has become a nationwide Republican problem. The party-animal fun of seeing candidates go full bore gonzo could only last so long. Savvy Republicans realize crazy-base rhetoric may work fine to stir up the 25% who make up their crazy base, but it's beginning to make the rest of the Republicans and R-leaning Independents uncomfortable. "Crazy" was on full display in the Republican presidential debates, and the voters, after becoming enamored with a string of gonzo flavors of the month, discarded them one by one until only Mitt who-knows-what-the-hell-he-stands-for Romney was left standing.
In 2012 Kelly could no longer be for privatization of Medicare. He had to be against it at the same time he wanted people to be able to choose to opt out of the program, or something like that. He was at war with his own message. Nationally, Republicans want to repeal Obamacare, period -- except maybe the part that includes children on their parents' insurance until they're 26 and the part that stops insurance companies from denying coverage to people with preexisting conditions. They can't keep their message straight, because, while they don't dare contradict their crazy-base messaging, they fear they'll lose too many votes if they stick to it too closely.
To the extent Democrats can make the various elections about what's wrong with the Republican candidates and tie them in knots as they try to explain their positions, like the Barber campaign did to Kelly, they'll do well, especially if they can come up with a clear, consistent, concise message.
Unfortunately, Democrats are pretty much all over the place this year, maybe not as much as in 2010 but certainly more than in 2008. Lots of candidates are running scared. They're sure the Republican rhetoric that worked so well in 2010 will work again, even though some of its appeal is fading. Are the Health Care Act, taxing the rich and supporting women's right to contraception and abortion good issues, or will they cost candidates votes? No one knows, and Democrats tend to opt for the more cowardly position. Barber won staking out safe positions, softening the edges of progressive issues whenever he took them. Would he have done better or worse if, say, he had said he would have voted for the Affordable Health Care act rather than dodging the question? We'll never know.
One thing we know for sure is, Republicans are in a weakened position relative to 2010. How Democrats will take advantage of it remains to be seen.