How to win the 8th Congressional District

I’ve met with with 8th Congressional District candidate Steve Greenberg on more than one occasion and found him to be a likeable guy with possible political potential for some time in the future.

It is going to be very difficult, however, for him to defeat Democrat incumbent Congresswoman Melissa Bean this November with his current strategy. To unseat Bean requires overcoming Republican incompetence both in Illinois and nationally—and that can’t be done in the next seven months without a different approach.

One of Greenberg’s biggest cheerleaders is the new National Republican Congressional Committee chairman Tom Cole. Cole thinks a new bag of campaign tricks can undo decades of Republican decline in Lake, McHenry, and northwest Cook Counties.

As I’ve noted, Congressman Cole made his living as a political consultant, so he is particularly handicapped when it comes to the ability to truly understand what is amiss in Illinois. Memo to Cole: Republican principles have rarely been heard within the confines of the 8th district in recent years.

The campaign of Dave McSweeney in 2006 was an exception. But I’ve written, the 8th doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and the only way to reach its voters is for there to be a credible and sustained effort by more than just one candidate during one campaign season.

Compounding Greenberg’s problem is that he has refused to separate himself from Illinois’ failed GOP old guard.

Ironically, according to an article by Benjamin Wallace-Wells in the New York Times, Tom Cole’s bag of campaign tricks includes attempting to run Greenberg as an outsider. Here’s the sentence from the NYT piece:

This time, Cole’s team was trying to recruit candidates who could plausibly run as political outsiders, which they believed Greenberg could.

The very same D.C. Republicans who never quite figured out that Dennis Hastert was leading them to disaster now think they’re being clever by calling Greenberg an outsider. Steve might have been an outsider when he was outside the Illinois GOP establishment—but now he has embraced both the Illinois and the D.C. GOP establishments.

Got that? It’s not that tough to grasp. In case anyone from Cole’s staff reads this, let’s make it simple: Steve was an outsider when he was outside; now that he’s inside he’s an insider.

It gets worse from the offices of Tom Cole. Cole’s brilliant strategy is to find candidates who can bring with them their own supporters, “beyond what the Republican Party can deliver on its own…”

With Greenberg, [Cole] thought it might be people like the candidate himself, rich moderate Republicans who might have been leery of the party’s evangelical tilt.

Instead of figuring out a way to rally the party’s base and build beyond it, Cole is fearful of that base and instead uses words like only a political consultant can. Greenberg was recently quoted in the press blasting McSweeney as being too conservative. Greenberg, on cue, is calling himself a “moderate,” as if there is a “moderate” solution to run away government spending, unsustainable entitlement programs and the international threat of terrorism.

You cannot defeat Bean by dissing your base, and you cannot defeat Bean while relying on all the same old Republicans who helped create the problem. Those Republicans show no sign that they understand why the 8th district was lost to Bean in the first place.

Tom Cole sees Steve Greenberg as a “top recruit,” and brought him to Washington to show him the 8th district broken down by township, religion, income, and ethnicity. It is amazing that in 2008 this kind of analysis is still taken seriously.

The delusion that micro-targeting is magic accounts for only part of the problem. Absorb this bit of wisdom from that NYT’s article:

Cole’s staff didn’t know all that much about Greenberg ideologically, but then they don’t make it their business to know. I once asked Cole about the positions his candidates were taking on immigration and the war. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever asked a candidate what he believes,’ he said. ‘We’re just looking for winning candidates.’ But one of the things they did know, and do make it their business to know, was geography. Greenberg was from one of the towns that tended to flip back and forth, the wealthy suburb of Long Grove. If he could simply prevail upon his neighbors to vote for him, Greenberg would have gone a long way toward winning back the seat. ‘There’s a head start already.’

Republican failures in Washington come into a lot more focus after reading paragraphs like that. It doesn’t matter what a candidate believes. It only matters that they can win. When they win, they don’t accomplish much of anything because they don’t believe in anything. Then they lose, and the cycle starts over again.

Rank and file Republicans lose regardless, because their values are rarely advanced, and public support for them is rarely increased. But the consultants got paid and more men and women have the opportunity to say they once served in Congress. Big deal.

With less than seven months until election day the best that could be hoped for in the 8th would be for Greenberg to change his mind and join the effort to reform the Illinois GOP. He has to come to grips with the fact that this is going to require a long-term rebuilding effort, and it’s going to take more than one attempt to unseat Bean.

If he wants to make headlines and have his candidacy stand out quickly, though, he could do that by publicly admitting that the GOP in Illinois is in shambles.

For clues on what it is going to take to turn things around for Republicans both in Illinois and around the nation, U.S. House and Senate Republicans would be well advised to read General David Petraeus’ “Counterinsurgency” manual and apply it to 2008 (and beyond). Parallels with American political realities are abundant in the pages of that document.