You have to hand it to the GOP. Even with all the evidence that Ryan's Curse poses a mounting problem for Republicans across the country (just take a look at all the Republican candidates who are nervously squirming when asked to take a position on the legislation), Republican leaders are firmly digging in their heels. Consider the Republican spin over their recent special election loss in New York's 26th District. Republicans emphatically stressed, and continue to stress, that Ryan's Curse did not sink Jane Corwin, even though victorious Democrat Kathy Hochul relentlessly attacked Corwin on her support for Ryan's scheme. The GOP first explained away their defeat by blaming it on the so-called "spoiler" effect of Tea Party candidate Jack Davis, an economic protectionist who ran for this seat three times in the past as a Democrat. Now, GOP Speaker John Boehner has a better idea -- blame it all on Corwin:
Pressed on why Democrats won in New York’s 26th district, Boehner said GOP candidate Jane Corwin let herself be defined by the Democrats, a third-party candidate siphoned votes from Corwin and her campaign handled the Medicare attacks from the other side of the aisle “poorly.”
Boehner emphasized, however, that Medicare was not the defining issue of the special-election race.
He acknowledged that House Republicans must improve their communications on the Medicare plan that was included in their House-passed budget.
“We have to engage. We have to be on offense,” Boehner said.
He also said GOP “members need to engage in this” and “explain [the Medicare plan]."
Of course! Ryan's Curse was not to blame -- it was just Corwin's fault for handling the issue "poorly". But wait -- haven't we heard this sort of thing before after a special election loss? Well, as it turns out, the GOP has a long, rich history of savaging their own candidates after losing special elections. Consider the special election to replace Kirsten Gillibrand in New York's 20th District after she was appointed to the Senate; Republican Jim Tedisco (of Panic! at Tedisco fame) began as the front-runner, but ended up losing a nail-biter to Democrat Scott Murphy. The knives came out quickly for that doofus:
Tedisco was a sensible choice—well-known, a party leader with working-guy cred. But he had not faced a serious challenge in years, though he had perfected the kind of attention-gathering stunts afforded to minority leaders in Albany. “He was manifestly unserious,” said one local Republican. “Every time he opened his mouth, he lost votes.”
Even the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page piled on:
Republicans lost because they fielded a poor candidate who ran a lousy campaign. While Mr. Murphy was a fresh face who could plausibly argue he'd assist President Obama's call for change, Republicans picked an Albany careerist who personified more of the same. GOP power broker (and Al D'Amato pal) Joe Mondello rigged the nomination to deny a real contest, thus cutting out the likes of former state Assembly minority leader John Faso.
At one point, Mr. Tedisco had a 20-point lead but squandered it by waffling on the Obama stimulus plan, running anti-Wall Street ads that confused the Republican base, and waiting until the last few days to criticize pro-union "card check" legislation. In other words, Mr. Tedisco betrayed that he wasn't all that different than the other politicians who have made Albany the tax and spend center of America.
Maybe some of the criticism in that case was not unfair -- Jimmy T certainly was a bit of a doofus, after all. But if you dig further into the sordid history of the GOP's special election performance, this kind of deflection reveals itself to be something of a stock response when Republicans want to avoid engaging in the substantive merits of their problems. After three special election losses in Republican districts in 2008, it became clear that this type of spin was unsustainable. Beltway writers gladly telegraphed the GOP's spin after their first two losses, but then-NRCC chair Tom Cole knew not to try a third time after Democrat Travis Childers stomped Republican Greg Davis in Mississippi's 1st District. Some Republican media, though, had already started to dish out the spin that the loss was Davis' fault, because he was "from the wrong part of the district":
Admittedly, there were circumstances that worked against Republican Davis that were strictly local. The evening before the balloting, Gov. Barbour told me “we had a very highly contested primary that was won by less than one percent of the vote. Greg Davis is a very good man but he’s from the wrong part of the district, where there are fewer people, and the Democrats nominated someone who’s more from the center of the district [which is more populous]. The Democrats' chance here is based on regionalism. They are trying to say this race is geographic, it’s regional, because if they know it’s about issues and philosophy, they’ll get beat. It’s going to be close.”
Just days before the Mississippi loss, the GOP lost another special election in Louisiana, where -- surprise, surprise -- it was all the candidate's fault:
Republican Richard Baker held the 6th District seat for more than 20 years before he retired earlier this year to become a hedge fund lobbyist. Jenkins, a longtime state representative who narrowly lost a 1996 Senate race to Democrat Mary Landrieu, was seen as a “flawed candidate” by GOP strategists, but they had no choice but to back him fully to try to derail the much younger Cazayoux.
And before that, when Democrat Bill Foster turned Denny Hastert's seat blue, the event was spun as a freak occurrence that was made possible only by the toxicity of Republican candidate Jim Oberweis -- and had nothing to do with any broader problems facing the GOP:
The loss of Hastert's seat in a special election in the far suburbs of Chicago was particularly painful, Republicans conceded. GOP campaign aides contended that the victory of Democratic physicist Bill Foster, a political neophyte, was more a reflection of the unpopularity of his Republican opponent, Jim Oberweis, than a tectonic political shift in a district that once exemplified the GOP's stranglehold on the nation's outer-ring suburbs.
I think the conclusion is pretty clear: When Republicans publicly spin their losses as individualized, isolated results borne by problematic candidates running substandard campaigns, it probably means they have bigger problems to worry about.
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