What Gov. LePage got right and wrong about the GOP nomination contest

Governor LePage made news at the National Governors Association.

Numerous polls show low enthusiasm among Republicans for their presidential field and potential nominees dropping in match-ups with President Obama.

Thus some Republicans — nearly all off-the-record — have said that they would be better off with a new candidate picked by the Republican National Convention. Now Governor LePage has spoken out.

As Politico reports:

“It’s been too messy. I just believe we ought to go to the convention and pick a fresh face,” LePage said. “They beat themselves up so badly that I’d think it’d be nice to have a fresh face.”

In response to a question about candidates’ discussing contraceptives, LePage refused to be drawn into discussing birth control, but said that his emphasis is on jobs.

As can be seen in this video, LePage declined to criticize any particular candidate, but said they have hurt each other and the party and “the country deserves better than having people stand up and keep criticizing each other.”

What did Governor LePage get right — and wrong?

The Governor is right that the campaign has been very negative.

In run-up to the Florida primary, “over all, 92 percent of the ads from the candidates and outside groups were negative.”

After the Citizens United case, huge amounts of money have been gathered and used by Super-PACs. And 25% of the money have come from just five donors.

This money fuels the negativity and extends the race. In the past, a candidate who was lagging in the polls and and hadn’t done well in recent electoral contests would have to drop out of the race. But with this source of campaign funding, candidates can keep going.

Governor LePage is right in implying that contraception is not a good issue emphasis for Republicans.

As I have previously noted, most Americans, including two-thirds of women, support having insurance companies cover birth control and since this issue has arisen, Mitt Romney’s ratings among women have fallen.  Moreover, these sorts of issues, such as the Virginia sonogram proposal, hurt Republicans in swing states.

However, Governor LePage overlooks the role of the Republican base in undermining the Republican field

These Republican candidates have been hurt by more than generic attacks. They have been hurt by having been held to the views of the core Republican base, a base that has become increasingly conservative.

Take the birth control issue. In the last Republican debate, Republican candidates not only strongly criticized the Obama administration’s policy, but tied birth control to a lack of morality.

Said Romney, “This isn’t an argument about contraceptives, this is a discussion about, are we going to have a nation which preserves the foundation of the nation, which is the family, or are we not?”

After Santorum was asked about his previous comment that “no president has talked about before — the dangers of contraception,” he replied, “What I was talking about is we have a society — Charles Murray just wrote a book about this and it’s on the front page of “The New York Times” two days ago, which is the increasing number of children being born out of wedlock in America, teens who are sexually active.

On birth control pills, Ron Paul said, “But sort of along the line of the pills creating immorality, I don’t see it that way. I think the immorality creates the problem of wanting to use the pills. So you don’t blame the pills.”

Whether on birth control or issues like tax rates for the most wealthy, Republican candidates are appealing to the base, which is far away from the average voter.

Most voters want the parties to work together. But at the Arizona debate Santorum was strongly criticized for having compromised when he was in the U.S. Senate.

It’s normal for candidates to appeal to the base and then try to move to the center to appeal to swing voters. But, should candidates want to do this, they can’t, not with a long campaign with a base that’s not interested in compromise, and with candidates kept alive by the Super PACs.

During the 2000 nomination contest, George W. Bush called himself a Reformer With Results. He said he worked with Democrats in Texas, was able to appeal to Hispanics, and called himself a “compassionate conservative.”  In today’s Republican party, he could not win with this approach.

Governor LePage may want a “fresh face,” but a contested convention likely would be a disaster and anyone new would face criticisms as well.

There is no easy way for a new candidate to emerge. A contested convention would be very messy. None of the candidates, having invested so much time and energy in the campaign, would readily give up their hopes for the presidency — certainly not Mitt Romney.

And how would delegates be moved, in a day and age without party leaders to whom the rank-and-file are loyal? Who would the broker in a brokered convention?

Even if a new candidate was picked, he or she would be quickly vetted. The “fresh face” would undergo intensive scrutiny and the candidate and campaign would have to respond, without having had the experience of being under a national spotlight. Without an extensive campaign organization and grassroots effort underway, the candidate would face massive head-winds.

At the end of the interview, LePage says that high gas prices could beat Obama. On that, he is right.  And Governor LePage is right that the Maine caucuses were badly handled and that errors should have been quickly acknowledged and corrected. Tensions within the Maine Republican party, in large part emanating from Ron Paul supporters, and an image of disarray that pay affect Maine politics, could have been avoided.

But while Governor LePage recognizes that the Republican presidential nominees are not looking good right now, his solution — the contested convention — would be ineffective.

It’s the issue positions of the potential Republican nominees that have undermined their political positions in the presidential race and could affect a slew of races all over the country — from the top of the ticket to congressional, state, and even local races.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.