Of all the gubernatorial contests in 2014, only one incumbent Democrat was unseated: Pat Quinn of Illinois, while another incumbent Democrat won big: Jerry Brown of California.
|Bruce Rauner (R-Illinois)|
First, let us consider the political environment.
California Governor Jerry Brown was very popular, with a well-known political family name behind him. Despite the smoke and mirrors of balanced budgets, pension reforms, and fiscal discipline, Brown is sitting atop a house of cards, much like Illinois, where environmental alarmists and progressive extremists have squeezed the middle class, complete with failing schools, crumbling infrastructure, and exiting populations. Still, Brown with a fawning media maintained relatively high approval ratings.
In contrast, Illinois' Pat Quinn took over from a convicted felon Democrat, Rod Blagojevich, who had replaced a corrupt Republican governor. After four years of fleeing tax base, failing schools, and skyrocketing crime rates in urban cities, plus unimaginable pension crises, local leaders, both Republican and Democrat, lined up behind Quinn's challenger. The incumbent was not popular to begin with, received no response from local crowds during little league games.
Now, let's consider the candidates.
|Neel Kashkari (R-California)|
Neel Kashkari never polled above twenty percent during the primary season. "None of the Above" had more name recognition than the Bush Administration TARP administrator. His primary opponent, Tim Donnelly, aroused suspicion, yet amassed a considerable conservative following. Their bitter primary induced national Republicans, as well as famous standard-bearers (since no Republican holds statewide office in California) to endorse Kashkari. California Republicans ended up beating each other, while both sides of the aisle and the media class all but conceded that Brown would win a fourth term.
In Illinois, four Republicans sought their party's nomination, but most of the primary fighting took place between union special interests and private business owner Bruce Rauner. Republicans were not fighting each other, as much as Democrats and their financial supporters were fighting against the most viable, thus most dangerous Republican candidate. In Illinois, the Republican candidates understood the threat posed by one force: the public sector unions. In California, Republicans had not defined a clear problem, nor clean vision for the state.
Kashkari alienated the Republican base with his strong stance on socially liberal issues, like gay marriage and abortion. He even marched in a San Diego gay pride parade, which offended many conservatives. He also failed to reach out and gain support from Democrats, most of whom either really believed that Brown was doing a good job, or were too afraid of the Dem machine backlash. Rauner stood with a large dais of Democratic supporters on the evening when he won the Republican nomination, which included influential leaders in the Chicago area.
|Kashkari marching in a San Deigo LGBT parade|
Kashkari presented two goals: “Jobs. Education. That's it.” Rauner had a four-point plan, which included term limits. There was something specific about Rauner's platform and campaign. Ignoring Democratic hegemony and capitalizing on Quinn's deep unpopularity, Rauner reached out to all Republicans, including the conservatives. Even though they did not agree on certain issues, he made it very clear that he respected the different opinions of other Republicans, having no intention of shaming or shunning them.
Kashkari wanted to rebrand the entire party, or try to move it left-ward with his campaign. His divisive campaign relied on defaming conservative candidate Tim Donnelly. Furthermore, Kashkari's record and rhetoric were an unconvincing amalgam to potential supporters, many of whom could not determine, or at least understand why Kashkari was running as a Republican in the first place.
What lessons can future Republican candidates learn from Rauner’s victory as well as Kashkari’s defeat?
1. Reach out to all members of one’s party, whether more liberal or conservative. Define the common interests and direct action and resources to consensus-based solutions. Avoid alienating one’s base.
2. Identify clear principles/reforms/mandates to pursue, and engage the voting public, regardless of political or personal background.
3. Define the opposition, and why they must be removed, as opposed to demeaning one’s primary opponents and thus risk wasting time and opportunities in the general election.