All things in moderation?

There are lots of comparisons one can make between the two gubernatorial races this year. Let me focus on one: moderates.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) (Marlon Correa/The Washington Post)
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) (Marlon Correa/The Washington Post)

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie won moderate voters in New Jersey by a margin of 61 to 37 percent. Ken Cuccinelli II lost moderates in Virginia by a 56 to 34 percent margin. That is a big deal.

In 2008 Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) lost among moderates by a 60 to 39 percent margin. In 2012 Mitt Romney did a little better but still lost among moderates by a 56 to 41 percent spread. It is not simply among independents (who may lean Democratic or Republican) that GOP candidates must do better (e.g. in 2012 Mitt Romney won independents by a 50 to 45 percent margin). It is among voters, whatever their party affiliation or lack thereof, whose ideology is more centrist than that of rock-ribbed conservatives.

The right wing continually gets this wrong, acting as if a majority of the country is Republican and conservative. Wrong on both counts. In 2012, 32 percent of the electorate was Republican, and 35 percent conservative (in contrast to 41 percent moderate). There simply aren’t these hidden right-wing Republicans who will leap out from under the bed if only the GOP comes up with a “vocal,” staunch conservative. In Texas, there might be, but not in Ohio, Virginia, Florida and other states where the GOP must do well.

So when characters like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) castigate other Republicans as “moderates,” he’s unintentionally doing them an immense favor. A center-right candidate is going to do a lot better than a far-right candidate.

Moreover, a surprising amount of the perception of “moderate” vs. “conservative” has to do with tone, priorities, governance and engagement. Gov. Bob McDonnell wasn’t very different from Cuccinelli on the issues, but he wasn’t perceived by suburban moderates as a right-wing kook. He held down the conservative vote (getting 91 percent) but grabbed almost half of the moderates (47 percent). That in a swing state is the difference between a big win and a narrow loss.

There is no one formula for projecting moderation. You can come across as a mild-mannered lawyer (McDonnell) or a brash man of the people (Christie) or a poised professional women (New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte), but what you don’t do is excoriate everyone to the left of you; keep reminding everyone you’re more conservative than the next guy; prioritize hot-button issues that are not high on the voters list of concerns; speak in highly abstract terms about philosophy and Constitutional interpretation; sound like you think many of your voters are moochers; condemn compromise; seek out minority voters only sporadically; and deride government (rather than promise to reform it). All of those things are tell-tale signs of the right wing these days, of course.

Here’s the thing: Voters will still regard you as “moderate” if you balance budgets, cut taxes, improve the business climate, criticize Obamacare and take on unions. That is what Scott Walker did in 2012 when he handily survived a recall attempt. He held  86 percent of conservatives and snagged 46 percent of moderates. Most right-wingers like Walker because of how he governs, so he keeps their votes, but he also can make inroads with moderates because he has governed well, focuses on things they care about and doesn’t go around chest-thumping about what a right-winger he is.

So “speak softly, carry a big (conservative) stick” might be good advice for Republicans running in statewide races and the presidential election. On the other hand, they could run a bunch of blowhards who don’t know much about governing and lose all sorts of winnable Senate seats and even some governorships.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.
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Jennifer Rubin | November 6, 2013