The election yesterday were a disaster for republicans. No two ways about it. However, we shouldn’t be terribly surprised by the results. Harris County is undeniably a blue county, and the Republicans followed the same model as the past few cycles insofar as how the county party campaigned. Casting blame does no good. We need to learn from the election, and make necessary course corrections going forward.
Messaging and Freedom
This cycle was a very odd cycle regarding messaging. Both parties have a variation of a freedom message. Normally Republicans have a message of freedom to (religion, speech, economic issues, personal autonomy), and Democrats have a freedom from (discrimination, poverty via social services and economic regulation, climate harm). This cycle the messaging was reversed. We argued a freedom from message (crime, inflation) and democrats argued a freedom to (abortion, personal autonomy.) We saw the predictable results. The overall political atmosphere nudged the needle right (3-5 point defeats versus 7-9 points last cycle), but only the criminal court races saw any extra movement based on messaging.
Lessons from the Disaster
First and foremost, don’t blame Cindy or HCRP for the disaster. She/they made the right call on paper insofar as how to message. It didn’t work, but that doesn’t mean poor decision making occurred. I have been critical of HCRP in the past, but this isn’t a time they deserve the blame. We do need to make changes in strategy, tactics, and messaging in the future, but again, on paper, they made the right decision strategy wise.
However, tactics HCRP uses in future elections need to change. The centralized running judicial campaigns through HCRP is a mistake; and hopefully we now can undisputedly see that the model doesn’t work. It didn’t work for Simpson, and it didn’t work now. It’s a bad model. (Solutions in the What Can We Do section below.)
Second, don’t draw the conclusion that abortion is a losing argument. That’s an easy incorrect conclusion to draw from this cycle with the Dems pushing abortion as their issue. However, historically, whenever the Supreme Court acts against abortion the left always has a transient bump in support. Before Covid the only time the abortion rate increased after the immediate aftermath of Roe was a response to the Carhart partial birth abortion ban. We should have expected a similar bump in democrat support as a reaction to Dobbs, and with the states allowed to make their own laws this is only amplified. However, it is a transient bump in support.
Also we didn’t engage on the issue. We abandoned the space to the Democrats, and unsurprisingly they ran wild with the issue to good effect. Simple engagement on the issue would have blunted some of the impact. A well conceived strategy of engagement dealing with both the fundamental arguments as well as noting the medical industry’s pushing of abortion like what happened with us – doctors brought up abortion at 31 weeks 6 days on their own motion and persisted until it stressed Rochelle into preterm labor – provides an effective blunting effect to voters who view the issue in the abstract.
A third lesson is red meat issues meant to energize the farther right base doesn’t work in general elections. A corollary is we need more moderate candidates for the premier races. A focus on CRT was effective in the school board races. However, that’s a race where only the more engaged segment of the voting population participates in the election. In the general election red meat issues don’t play well with the general public. It may work in some specific state house districts, but overall it’s not an effective message for general election purposes. CRT, voter fraud, and the like aren’t winners.
If there is legitimate suspicion of voter fraud then that needs to be carefully evidenced and addressed outside of election windows. I’m not suggesting we don’t address the problem, but we need to do so outside of when it will become associated with a Democrat and media pushed narrative of conspiracy theory and distract from messaging. That’s not always going to be possible, but we need to aim to act in a manner that the issue minimizes our messaging.
What Can We Do
Lessons are useless if we don’t learn and adapt, so this leads to the question of what can we do going forward.
As an initial measure we need to talk about solutions. The freedom from message this cycle didn’t resonate particularly well because we didn’t offer meaningful or detailed solutions to the problems we identified. Even the hire more law enforcement officers refrain doesn’t get around the message of soft on crime judges release criminals back onto the streets. More law enforcement officers doesn’t address the soft on crime judges issue, and voters could see the disconnect. Detailed solution oriented messaging not only serves a constructive purpose, but it also allows for an acknowledge and pivot type of response.
If the democrats want to use Uvalde as a call for gun control, acknowledge the horror of the situation, and then pivot to a solution that doesn’t involve gun control – something like adding door bolts on the floor to classrooms so shooters cannot enter the classrooms in an active shooter situation. This steers the conversation away from red flag laws and is a simple, inexpensive, solution to address the problem. Plus, it compels the democrats to agree with us, or look like they are objecting to reasonable, inexpensive, measures to increase school safety.
A second change we need to make is use a fundamentally different model for campaign type activities in the general elections. HCRP generally doesn’t have a good presence in persuadable blue areas of the county. Groups like TARC and individual candidates will appear, but HCRP, by and large, is absent from events in/around Sharpstown as an example while the Southwest Democrats are always present. Abandoning the space to the democrats doesn’t help persuade voters to our vision.
Right now, not only do we lose the opportunity to spread our message, but it also is bad optics looking like we don’t care about this part of the county. A focus on presence and we care will help move the general needle in our direction, and frees up candidates to tailor their message to how they want to campaign leading to a cross pollination of messaging along the margins of the message campaign. The cross pollination will end up appealing to more voters as different iterations of what we believe will resonate with different segments of the voting population.
Thirdly, we need to engage in visible public good. Nothing speaks to voters more than actively making their lives better in a tangible way. This can be done either directly by having HCRP directly engage in public service activities, or indirectly by having known republicans engaging in public service activities and HCRP having a presence and/or providing support in the background. The former has direct benefit, and the latter has indirect “I don’t like republicans, but XXX is a good guy” effect. Both ways break down barriers, and they provide synergy to a solution oriented messaging campaign.
HCRP, or Individuals will Define the Future
It bears repeating, this cycle’s results shouldn’t be blamed on Cindy or HCRP. Messaging wise they made the right call on paper. It just didn’t work out. We need to focus on the future. With Commissioner’s Court now firmly in Democrat control we have no effective check to the Democrat’s power. We also have no functional mouthpiece to carry our message. The question becomes how do we promote our message going forward.
The void is either going to be filled by HCRP, or individuals will emerge who have a message and that becomes the Republican message. Obviously, it’s better if HCRP becomes the message bearer given the organization, resources, and status of HCRP. However, it will require HCRP to not only show a willingness to change course, but also to be open to constructive criticism and insist on a calmer level of demeanor in public discourse.
We don’t have any effective power to shape the direction the county is going to follow for the next four years. With the disastrous showing yesterday it’s unlikely that we will have meaningful influence on the municipal elections next year. To begin to gain ground we have to focus on generally moving the needle to the right. That requires a change in message and strategy philosophy.
Cindy has done a good job getting HCRP structurally better organized, and with candidate recruitment. If she can show a path forward that is different from what we have been doing and that HCRP has learned lessons from this cycle then she’s a good choice to lead the party going forward. It’s a natural building off of the structural improvements she’s achieved.
For all our sakes, I hope she does.