Klingler on Republicans in 2010

Where Texas Republicans went wrong, and what it'll take to go right

At first glance, it's been a pretty good election year for Texas Republicans (especially when compared to the national party). Still, 2008 has been a wake-up call for the state party about how it campaigns. As it starts the long, slow buildup to the 2010 elections, Republican Party of Texas Communications Director Hans Klingler sees the party getting off its laurels. "We have to continue to not only talk about who is running but why they're running and what they believe in," he said.

Hans Klingler
Hans Klingler

For all the Democratic gains in November, Texas is still a pretty red state. Republicans hold the Senate by a comfortable margin and look like they'll keep effective control of the House. With one seat (House District 105) in recount, their worst-case scenario is a 75-75 tie, but a 76-74 majority is also possible. Either way, they look likely to hold the speakership, even if the hand holding the gavel changes after challenges to Speaker Tom Craddick are settled. Statewide, Repub­licans kept their lock on the Railroad Com­mis­sion, the Supreme Court, the Court of Criminal Appeals, and the State Board of Education. On the federal side, they picked up a congressional seat when Pete Olson dislodged Democrat incumbent Nick Lamp­son in District 22 ("That was a huge diamond in the crown for us," said Klingler). And the presidential race was a 56%-44% blowout for Sen. John McCain.

Pete Olson
Pete Olson

Yet Klingler sees some serious takeaway points to mull over. "No longer are Repub­lic­ans going to be able to rest on a top-down strategy. We are going to have to re-engage and re-emerge as experts in get-out-the-vote, which is what we were." The key lesson, he holds, is that the bottom of the ballot, especially House races, can drive voters. "It is proof-positive to us that, for the first time in a very long time, people engaged in the policy discussion of this election. They weren't just voting on personality. They're receptive to policy discussion from both parties, and I think that makes Texas a better place."

That level of local engagement, he argues, is why Democrats did so well in House races but still flatlined for statewide offices. "They still haven't found an appropriate or relevant messenger," he said, "but when Democrats go into full-on recruiting mode, they can recruit candidates who sound moderate to conservative in districts where they need to sound moderate to conservative." He points to two Austin seats as examples of GOP failures to counter that success. "Valinda Bol­ton and Donna [Howard] both voted against Jessica's Law in an area where that should have been an issue. But when Republicans don't push that as a contrast and don't make that a demarcation issue, we tend not to perform, even though those are marginal districts."

The one thing that Klingler doesn't see is Texas inevitably flipping to a blue state. The growing block of independent voters always looks for what he calls "the shiniest penny" when it comes to candidates, he said. That's where Sen. Kim Brimer, R-Dallas, failed when he repeatedly sued challenger Wendy Davis to have her ruled ineligible to run for his seat. "No court in this state was going to rule to kick someone off the ballot," Klingler said. Instead of running on a record as a strong advocate for his district, he said, "he made her a victim." Klingler doesn't attribute Brimer's loss to a voter rejection of his policies and achievements but rather to Brimer's failure to engage on issues – a misstep that saw him fall from a 59%-41% victory in 2004 to a 48%-50% loss in 2008.

The campaign season wasn't all about defense for Republicans. They made serious gains in judicial races, for instance, which Klingler attributes to Republicans' achieving what the Dems achieved with the House: engaging voters from the bottom of the ticket. "Between 2006 and 2008, we took 203 seats total at the local level, thus flipping 22 courthouses from blue to red and changing areas where there hadn't been an elected Republican ever," he said.

"Texas still ticks as a center-right state by 5 or 6 points," he concluded. "But that should give no Republican in the state cause for jubilation or the ability to rest." What that means is quickly rebuilding the ground game for which the party was so famous in the 1990s – but also ensuring that lawmakers use the next legislative session to lay out clear policies that voters will think about at the ballot box on Nov. 2, 2010. "Republicans don't lose in Texas because our message is too conservative," he added. "We lose if we don't have a message."

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