Walking precincts in Fall River, Mass., for President Gerald Ford in 1976 might not seem like a wise investment of time or shrewd display of political instincts. But it was more pleasant by far than my first campaign as a volunteer. Even in deeply Democratic Massachusetts, most people liked Jerry Ford even if they wouldn’t vote for him in a million years. By contrast, two years earlier, when I tucked handbills into screen doors for Rep. Paul Cronin (R-Mass.) in the immediate aftermath of Watergate, the hostility I met foreshadowed the upcoming electoral bloodbath for my GOP. Moderate, affable and smart, Cronin was dispatched from Congress by a fine fellow from the enemy party named Paul Tsongas.
I was a freshman at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics then. The faculty thought it was a grand idea to place students as interns inside campaigns. It worked for me. The Cronin campaign taught me far more about elections than any classroom lecture. It also guided me inside the Republican Party. In a roundabout way, I owe much of my happiness to my party: At a GOP fundraiser for future senator and California governor Pete Wilson, I met my wife.
Yeah, I am a proud “party man.”
In that spirit, I traveled to the winter meeting of the Republican National Committee held recently in Dana Point, Calif. The legacy media was busy digging another of its periodic graves for the GOP, highlighting long-shot challenges to party Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel. I wasn’t listening for those voices, because I was confident McDaniel would be reelected. Challengers Harmeet Dhillon and Mike Lindell had very vocal advocates, but McDaniel has steered a strong course through deep party divides, and she had the votes locked up from the start.
I was listening to the insider voices. The only way to gain more than a surface grasp of party politics is to attend the local meetings, show up at state conventions and keep your ears open at the national meetings. Eventually, you learn to hear the undertones.
Here’s what they are saying: After the disappointment of November, when the “red wave” of 2022 didn’t arrive as expected, Republicans are hopeful about the red thunderstorms that broke out across the country. I found a palpable eagerness to challenge President Biden head-on.
Whether they came from Ohio, Florida, North Carolina or Texas, the reports of most state parties could not have been more upbeat. Supermajorities in many state legislatures are driving breakthrough innovations in policy — none more encouraging than the education funding revolution in Arizona championed by the recently retired governor Doug Ducey. Every student will get a voucher to spend at the school chosen by the student’s parents: public or not.
“Backpack funding,” as the model is cleverly called, has already spread to Iowa, where the Arizona model will be phased in over a few years. Utah followed this year, and Arkansas and Ohio are expected to be next with similar reforms based on Arizona’s example. Republican activists have rarely rallied around a single set of issues as potent as becoming the party of parents, finally delivering on school choice.
Not that schools and parents provide the only winning issues for Republicans. Border security, the fentanyl crisis, crime and the threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party were cited repeatedly in speeches, as well as the hallway chatter. But the focus is on parents and children — and the government schools that have failed them.
Many in legacy media went for the easy story — the late challenges to the party chair by candidates who didn’t really stand a chance. Inexperienced reporters love a horse race, even if they have to manufacture it. The more difficult work comes in listening intently through hours of state party reports at five minutes each. Yet that’s how you learn that a handful of troubled states, such as Pennsylvania, can’t obscure a large majority of happy and effective campers. From trench warriors to national committee members, I heard again and again in conversations that the GOP is in very good shape.
When I cite “longtime Republicans,” I’m not referring to TV pundits who think Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential bid is ancient history. I mean the people who can remember offering unwanted brochures to angry voters in the dark, dark year of 1974. People who know the difference between a mixed result and a blowout loss — and most especially, people who know when a party has taken a dent or two but is structurally sound and running smoothly.
That’s Ronna McDaniel’s Republican Party. And that is why she won handily.