Into the blue: Taking conservatism to liberal strongholds

Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. This poses some tough questions for conservatives: Is our message still appealing to the American majority? If so, are our values being articulated ineffectively? Is the Grand Old Party dropping the ball and not winning over voters sitting on the fence? The short answer is, all of the above.

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While canvassing in rural parts of my Rhode Island hometown, there surfaced a core problem in the Republican grassroots strategy. The door-to-door protocol set forth by the state party prohibited canvassers from entering voters’ homes. This might seem subtle, but it gets to the heart of why it can be difficult for Republicans to expand their small base in largely Democratic districts. In many cases, the effort simply isn’t being made to win over new converts.

At first, the protocol wasn’t difficult to follow as voters joined canvassers on doorsteps or front lawns. It wasn’t until my brother happened upon the home of an apparent shut-in – unable to get up but seemingly eager for company – that he broke the rules.

Much to the chagrin of his handler, my brother – after invited inside – crossed the threshold to talk to the elderly gentleman about his take on public-policy issues of the day. General lesson learned: We must go where the people are willing to meet us.

In the same way, Republicans need to make a concerted effort to more comprehensively reach constituents regardless of where they fall on precinct maps. The party needs to do more than mobilize partisan-friendly voting blocs, and stimulate what former President Ronald Reagan and British former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher called the “battle of ideas.”

At a gathering of Rhode Island Republicans earlier this year, former Florida Congressman Allen West challenged conservatives to take the road less traveled, especially in blue states.

“So many people say, ‘Why come to Rhode Island?’ Well, let me tell you a story about fighters; let me tell you a story about paratroopers,” Mr. West, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, said. “Paratroopers don’t jump in front of the enemy lines; paratroopers jump in behind enemy lines.”

Like paratroopers, conservatives must be willing to broach the tough places – to cross thresholds and have the courage to engage in oftentimes difficult-but-rewarding encounters.

Crystal Wright, blogger and founder of the Conservative Melting Pot PAC, later this month will share her ideas with The Roosevelt Society, a R.I.-based center-right coalition, on engaging urban minorities. “The party must make ‘the tent’ more welcoming to minorities and women, where the votes increasingly are,” Ms. Wright said in a recent article in The Guardian.

But how to do this?

New York Times columnist David Brooks suggests Republicans need to quit reducing their talking points to partisan jabs and instead focus on solutions-oriented appeals for reform.

“Find people who can shift the debate away from the abstract frameworks – like Big Government vs. Small Government. Find people who can go out with notebooks and study specific, grounded everyday problems: What exactly does it take these days to rise? … What are the best ways to rouse ambition and open fields of opportunity?” Mr. Brooks advises in a post-election column titled, “The Party of Work.”

If conservatives muster courage enough to wiggle out of their shells and offer practical solutions for everyday problems, they have an opportunity to win over some malcontent Democrats and independents increasingly dissatisfied with President Obama’s job performance and the lingering long-term unemployment experienced on his watch.

There is even an opening in the northeast, which has been markedly Democratic for decades. The partisan enthusiasm of those along the New England shoreline who identify as liberal is ebbing, as fewer voters cast ballots for Mr. Obama in 2012 than 2008. This decline is occurring in longtime liberal strongholds such as Maine, Rhode Island and Vermont.

New generations bring new opportunities, too. According to Pew Research Center, millennials are more “open to change” than previous generations, and headway is being made with this independent-minded demographic group.

Nationally, the number of millennials who say they lean Republican nearly doubled a year after Mr. Obama’s election, according to Pew. Almost four years later, according to a poll by Harvard’s Institute of Politics, only 25 percent of millennials believe the country is headed in the right direction.

The rest are ripe for the picking.

There are receptive audiences ready to hear the conservative message of less government and more individual opportunity. As with the elderly shut-in, conservatives need to knock on the door if they want to be invited to have a civil exchange of ideas and the chance to win over new voters.

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