Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Understanding the future of the Republican Party

Published: Sunday, Nov. 18 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, talks with chief strategist Stuart Stevens on his campaign bus as they drive from Naples, Fla., to Hialeah, Fla., Sunday, Jan. 29, 2012.

Associated Press

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Republican second-guessing and finger-pointing continue across the country (fun or miserable to watch — depending on your perspective) as President Barack Obama develops his second-term agenda and the U.S. Senate remains comfortably in Democratic control.

What is to be learned from dissecting the GOP loss, and what is the potential impact for Utah's GOP?

Pignanelli: "Letting a community organizer run a more precise, data-driven, metrics-based campaign than a Bain Capital executive is incomprehensible. In 2012, the Republicans were like a bag phone to Obama's iPhone — when they needed to be a Samsung" — Marc A. Thiessen, The Washington Post. The public navel gazing by Republicans is important therapy for the party and the country (Democrats' overdue introspection is now delayed). The 2012 elections confirmed that most engaged voters are social libertarians — diverse in personal characteristics and responsive to technology. This independent streak offers a future opening to the GOP, if they abandon the Limbaugh loonies.

The conundrum inside the national GOP could be an opportunity for local Republicans. Many Utahns worked on the Mitt Romney campaign, but none are garnering the blame for a creaky turnout effort. Indeed, our state remains famous for competent operations. Prominent Utah Republicans shrewdly avoid the public minefields of stupidity (i.e., redefinitions of rape, degrading the indigent, etc.) Notwithstanding the noise of some activists, the Utah approach to immigration reform is practical and compassionate. Thus, the moderate tone — but firm conviction — of Utah conservatives is the right recipe for American Republicans to adopt.

Webb: A big loss on the battlefield is always followed by pundits and critics descending from the rocks and crevasses of the hills to shoot the wounded. The Republican Party's biggest problem is that it forces candidates to run so far to the right to secure the nomination that moving to the center and winning a majority of general election votes is difficult. That's a tough problem to solve.

But remember that this was a very close election. Obama won by 3.5 million votes out of nearly 122 million votes cast. Many of the swing states were extremely close, and had some of them gone the other way, the electoral college count would be much different. A few hundred thousand vote changes in key counties in key states and Romney would be hailed as a brilliant campaigner and tactician, not a befuddled loser.

Nevertheless, Romney lost, and the lessons are straightforward: Don't allow your opponent to run savage ads defining you early, without adequate response. Don't offend growing voter constituencies, communicate more effectively, target better, use data better, mount a better get-out-the-vote effort. Obama beat Romney in key counties in the nuts and bolts, the blocking and tackling, of campaign management.

In Utah, the lesson is the same: Republicans lost the 4th Congressional District and the Salt Lake County mayorship because Democrats ran better technical campaigns, only a tiny bit better in the 4th District, but still better.

Nothing is wrong with the basic mainstream conservative message of reasonable taxes, limited government, free enterprise and individual responsibility. We just need to do it better.

Some national media have pointed to former governor/ambassador and presidential aspirant Jon Huntsman Jr. as the type of Republican who could win. Does he have a future GOP role?

Pignanelli: The Obama campaign was scared to death of a Huntsman nomination — because he would win! Since dropping out of the presidential primaries, political pundits dismissed Huntsman as a gadfly. They are hushed now. Huntsman was absolutely correct in analyzing the approach Republicans must undertake to win across the board. The Huntsman formula of pro-growth, pro-immigration, pro-global economy and pro-moderation on social issues attracts minorities, the young, single women and the entrepreneurial. This vindication is a launching pad for him.

Webb: The way forward is difficult for Huntsman. Some elements of his approach are exactly what the national Republicans need, but his wing of the Republican Party is small. Remember that he was barely a factor in the GOP nomination race. The party has a deep bench of exciting new-generation Republicans, and Huntsman will have to be very skilled to emerge in the top-tier of the 2016 aspirants. Thankfully, the GOP's ardor for the tea party has cooled, but it's not quite ready to embrace Huntsman.

Utah Republican legislators recently selected their leadership team for the next two years. Does this offer insight to the future?

Pignanelli: Within two days of the election, Rebecca Lockhart was re-elected speaker of the House by Republican colleagues and was praised in public by Democratic Leader David Litvack for her leadership. Lockhart's gritty determination to conservative values — but open management style — places her in contention for a remarkable future. Wayne Neiderhauser has an established reputation for accountability and transparency in government operations. His elevation to Senate president will benefit the state through expanding these important endeavors.

Webb: Utah has big opportunities ahead, amid serious challenges. Success will require a mainstream conservative Legislature focused on practical problem-solving and consensus-building, rather than far-right ideological adventures. I believe the new leadership team is fully up to the task.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email: frankp@xmission.com.

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