8:30 am Sep. 22, 2010
A conversation with Salon news editor Steve Kornacki about the Tea Party and the New York governor's race.
Josh Benson: You've written about the various ways in which the Tea Party is not helpful to the national Republican Party, and talked about how much better they might be doing in the polls, collectively, if they hadn't nominated such an interesting collection of characters. What can the Democrats actually do to take advantage of the unexpected opportunities they see in the primary victories of these Angles and O'Donnells and for that matter, Paladinos?
Steve Kornacki: The short answer is just to let them talk. But it's not that easy, because O'Donnell seems to be figuring out what Angle and Rand Paul learned: If you keep quiet and be as boring as possible, you'll probably win in this climate. In this environment, the Tea Party candidates only really hurt themselves when they come across like Tea Party activists. When they seem kooky and flaky, in other words. O'Donnell, Angle and Paul (and maybe Joe Miller in Alaska) are the only ones who really seem at risk of this.
Steve: There's a big difference between them and, say, Pat Toomey (in Pennsylvania) and Marco Rubio (in Florida), who embrace Tea Party ideology but who are also polished politicians. They can handle the spotlight. These other guys can't.
Josh: Well, so then that would seem to confirm that it's not a great idea for the Dems to do nothing in those cases. What are they supposed to do?
Steve: You know, I've seen so many stories and heard so much speculation about what the Dems could/should be doing, and I'm really not sure there's a general answer. I'm a big believer that structural factors will account for most of what happens in November—that there's very little that campaign tactics and messaging can affect, at least at this point. And from that standpoint, the playing field is just so slanted to the G.O.P. right now that the best hope for Dems is that some of these candidates self-destruct; that they become so unacceptable that just enough swing voters decide they just can't go through with it and side with the Dem instead. Democrats can do some things to make this more likely (negative advertising, demanding debates and drawing attention to their flaky opponents' unwillingness to answer questions from the public, etc.). But the threshold is high in terms of what it will take to scare swing voters off G.O.P. candidates in a year like this. It needs to be an Oliver North situation.
Josh: Well OK, let's take the Oliver North example. He did a decent job all by himself scaring people out of their minds, but the Dems found ways to help him along, didn't they? Aren't there any lessons from the North election that apply to any of this year's races?
Steve: Ah yes—one of my favorite moments of the '94 campaign:
Steve: I think this clip sums it up perfectly. I mean, the '94 climate was almost EXACTLY like this year's, and the dynamic was the same: New Democratic president with big House/Senate majorities, and a fierce backlash from an increasingly conservative G.O.P. that felt betrayed by the previous Republican president (George H.W. Bush for breaking his "Read my lips" pledge...)
And Charles Robb, the Democrat who beat North, was just the worst candidate ever. His popularity was ridiculously low because of a bunch of scandals and he had a knack for putting his foot in his mouth. And Virginia was a red state. Robb should have lost by 20 points, easily. But watch that clip. Look at all the baggage Ollie North had. That is not a normal rap sheet. That's the kind of rap sheet that makes swing voters really, really nervous.
Steve: And that clip is from the final days of the race. The polls were dead even. They had been for the whole race. Virginians BADLY wanted to throw Robb out, but they just had so many doubts about North being a genuinely bad, extreme guy. And Robb (or really, a Robb staffer) put them all together in one beautiful soundbite that was played over and over on the news. Forget the individual claims, the length of the list just played into swing voters' doubts about North. And Robb won by 3 points.
Josh: So is that the scary-making ideal that, say, Harry Reid is going for? Does he need a Robb moment?
Steve: Well, he could do something like that, I think. Angle has given him real ammunition—much more than, say, Pat Toomey has given Sestak. The Nevada dynamic is very much like Virginia in '94: Reid's numbers are just like Robb's. People want him out. He'd be trailing by 15-20 against a generic Republican. But Angle is keeping him in the game.
Steve: Her baggage is a little different from North's. People saw him as inherently dishonest and maybe even evil. She's just an extreme ideologue with a reputation for kookiness. So it's a little tougher for Reid to deliver the kind of indictment that Robb did. But it's the same basic situation: Voters have serious reservations about her, and if Reid wins, it will be because those reservations are so strong. Not because of any positive message Reid might deliver.
Josh: OK well, you've described the playbook for a Democrat who really ought to lose but who might win because the Republicans opted for an impractical alternative. (Edwin Edwards-David Duke!) Let's look now at a very different situation, and in a way one for which the formula, for the Democrat, is less obvious.
Josh: What do you do if you're a decent Democratic candidate in a very Democratic state who ought to win going away, but who is suddenly confronted by a nothing-to-lose Tea Party-surge conservative populist?
Josh: What do you do if you are, say, Andrew Cuomo?
Josh: It is not at all clear that Cuomo knows the answer yet! An "insider" has put it about that he is agonized over the prospect of doing something as uncouth as having to stoop to Carl Paladino's rhetorical level. The insider wants us to know that Cuomo finds the idea ridiculous that he might be expected to respond in kind to Paladino's insults by calling him an "a--hole."
Josh: But clearly doing nothing, while surrogates say mean things to highlight Paladino's established negatives, is not a terrific option either. Martha Coakley tried that.
Josh: What might be a better strategy?
Steve: Yeah, Coakley shows the risk of that. And the whole story that Andrew is huddling with his advisers to figure out how—and whether—to respond only feeds the caricature Paladino is trying to create and gives him more ammo. So I really don't see how he doesn't end up doing a debate—and really, he should agree to something soon. And Coakley's not the only cautionary example: Look at Blumenthal in Connecticut, who had Andrew-ish approval numbers. Now he's in a six-point Senate race. And the Democratic governor of West Virginia, another guy with a 70 percent approval rating, is now losing in one poll in a Senate race ...
Steve: That said, Cuomo can, if he has to, pull a Chuck Robb and really get rough with Paladino. The emails alone could do it. I'm sure he doesn't want to do it, but if Paladino starts moving near/within single digits, the option is there. Coakley couldn't do that with Scott Brown. But let's see just how much traction Paladino gets. I saw a Rasmussen poll that had it down to 16, 54 to 38. Let's see if it stabilizes and moves back near 20.
Josh: Does Cuomo wait? And if he finally does act, is it just a question of reciting the various ways in which Carl Paladino's behavior has been at variance with conventional standards of conduct for people aspiring to be in positions of responsibility? Is it an oppo bomb, in other words, or does that just feed into the angry-crazy -guy appeal? Or is Cuomo not better off sticking to substance and essentially saying "Like me or not, but I am competent and this man is extreme and incredibly irresponsible?"
Josh: He has options, certainly! Is it more interesting for example, that Paladino forwarded racist and obscene emails? Or that he is running for governor and appears to lack some fairly basic information about what the governor's powers are, and who runs what?
Steve: Here's the ad that Cuomo should mimic:
Steve: This was run by a Democratic candidate for Congress in an overwhelmingly Republican district in Idaho in 2006. Bill Sali was, roughly speaking, Idaho's equivalent of Paladino. It's just devastating, I think. (Sali won that race, but he barely cracked 50 percent, in a deeply red district. And he was run out two years later.)
Steve: The emails are huge, the ignorance is huge, the disgust of Republican leaders is huge. You could make that kind of ad against Paladino, easily. Then Cuomo can show up at the debate and try to ignore him. Not that Paladino will let him, but let's see how unhinged he looks trying to egg Andrew into a confrontation. And he should be equipped with some kind of sharp put-down for if/when he finally has to turn to Paladino and address his rantings. I don't know what that line is, but I'm sure they can come up with one—sort of like Bill Clinton defusing a patriotism issue in the first '92 debate with one artful reference to George H.W. Bush's father.
Josh: I think Cuomo's publicly disseminated frustration at having to think about such things is pretty self- serving, but I don't doubt for a second that he's been highly inconvenienced by having to run against Paladino and not Lazio. He would certainly have been able to ignore Lazio. The state Republican chairman did his best to ignore Lazio! At least until it started looking like they might end up with Paladino.
Josh: You've talked a lot about how, in contests in which Tea Party candidates won out over more conventional Republicans, it has been a great competitive advantage for the Democrat. Is the New York governor's race an exception?
Steve: I think it is, but mainly because the race was on course to be a lot less competitive than it should be this year. Not that Cuomo should be in a nail-biter, but the G.O.P. was basically taking this one off, and Lazio wouldn't have changed that at all.
Steve: Paladino has attracted enough attention and stirred enough interest to bring the Republican number up closer to where it should be anyway. But if it gets closer than that, then the Tea Party stuff becomes a total liability for him, too.
Steve: My instant reaction is that Paladino shouldn't be understood just as a Tea Party figure, since the Tea Party is basically a phenomenon limited to the Republican Party base. In other words, there's no way that Christine O'Donnell or Sharron Angle would be within 6 points of Cuomo right now. More than ideology and kookiness, Paladino projects frustration, anger and even rage, which has unusually wide appeal in a year like this. But his baggage and temperament are still prohibitive. This thing will be closer than I ever imagined and Cuomo's going to have to engage him fast. Time to put those Bill Sali ads up.