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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas

Posted May 1, 2009 | 11:53 AM (EST)

Republicans Fire Strategist for Telling Them How to Win


What happens when a Republican strategist tries to figure out why the party keeps hemorrhaging votes?

Well, in Michigan, he loses his job.

That's what happened to Dennis Darnoi, who used to be a consultant to state Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, R-Rochester. But he made the mistake of actually trying to advise Republicans on how to win again, instead of whispering sweet nothings in their ears that what voters really want in a depression, baby, is a gay adoption ban.

Darnoi's heresy was penning a white paper for a client examining voter trends over the last decade. Michigan has been reliably blue in presidential elections. But Republicans also lost the state House, the governor's mansion and control of the congressional delegation. His conclusion was that the GOP couldn't count on a backlash to Barack Obama or Gov. Jennifer Granholm to guarantee victory in 2010.

The message of tax cuts and social issues isn't resonating anymore with voters, who have fled the party in droves, especially in big swing counties like Oakland and Kent. Demographics aren't in Republicans' favor in Michigan or nationally, with the fast-growing groups of Asians, Hispanics and young people all voting Democratic by scary margins.

So what's the solution? Darnoi didn't suggest anything radical like bowing at Obama's feet and hoisting the Communist flag. No, he said Republicans should run on accountability and transparency while big government is OK with voters, as a recent Gallup/USA Today poll shows. He notes that moderate GOP candidates have enjoyed some success even in areas where the president won handily, like Kalamazoo.

He also believes that the GOP needs an image makeover, stat, as it's perceived as wanting gays to stay in the closet and being on the wrong side of environmental regulations and alternative energy.

No kidding. The overarching view of Democrats used to be that they were limp-wristed, liberal weenies. But the '80s and '90s are over. What Republicans fail to realize is that their party is now tagged as being one of mean, bigoted blowhards. Of course, many are too busy self-medicating with the primal screams of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck to notice that the ground has shifted beneath them.

I obtained a copy of the white paper and wrote a story last week for Michigan Information & Research Service (MIRS). A day later, the Senate GOP caucus meeting turned into a witch-hunt and Darnoi received his walking papers.

Dissent will not be tolerated, comrades. Vigorous debate is for wusses. And Republicans would rather lose than take a good look in the mirror.

High-priced consultants were happy to indulge the fantasy, with Sterling Corp.'s Jeff Timmer sniffing that Darnoi "did a fantastic job avoiding statistical science and facts," when the white paper was basically all numbers, using Secretary of State data.

But ignorance is strength and all that.

Timmer is the guy who declared victory after the '08 thumping, chirping that the Dems had blown it because they hadn't hit 80 seats in the House - a 50-seat margin. Yes, indeedy, capturing nine spots for a 24-seat majority is the very mark of failure.

Dave Doyle of Marketing Resource Group fired off a huffy memo accusing Darnoi of pushing "the idea that only candidates of a certain ideology can be elected." No, dude, that's what the GOP party brass has done for years by shoving anyone who's pro-choice, pro-gay rights and open to an occasional tax increase out the door (and into the open arms of the Democrats).

But fear not, dear Republicans. The party is "stronger today than we were in 1989," declares Doyle. And lookie there, John Engler got elected governor, so run his campaign again and total victory is at hand!

Note to naive Republicans: When someone tries to sell you a strategy based on historical inevitability, run - unless you think Hillary Clinton got it right last year. And perhaps taking advice from Doyle, who managed to louse up last year's campaign against the pro-embryonic stem cell research Proposal 2 (and run those disgusting eugenics ads aimed at African-Americans), might not be a stellar idea.

Remarkably, Darnoi is sanguine about the whole episode. The former Engler aide told me he can't help but feel somewhat comforted by Arlen Specter switching parties, with the senator sadly saying that Ronald Reagan's big tent has shrunk and his "political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans."

"Will Republicans take the opportunity to be introspective or circle the wagons?" Darnoi muses. "I think we have the answer to that."

Indeed. The reaction of Republicans to Specter was as shrill is it was to Darnoi. GOP Chair Michael Steele sneered at the senator's "left-wing voting record" and compared him to Benedict Arnold. Limbaugh begged Specter to "take (John) McCain and his daughter with you."

Only 21 percent of voters identify as Republicans in the latest Washington Post poll. More than half of voters view the GOP unfavorably, according to Pew Research. But Darnoi thinks it could take two more losing election cycles for the GOP to get the message and adapt to modern times.

Meanwhile, Republicans seem content to fetishize Reagan and Engler to the point of parody. Of course, both men raised taxes. And Engler said "thanks, but no thanks" to an anti-gay ballot proposal in the '90s.

Kind of makes you wonder if these conservative icons could make it in today's ultra-pure GOP.