John Feehery: Speaking Engagements

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Don’t Fear the Primary

Posted on November 10, 2009
Washington (CNN) -- Tea Party activists and other conservative Republicans are threatening to run their candidates against more moderate senatorial and congressional candidates in next year's primaries.

Many Washington-based lawmakers have recoiled against the notion of the primary, worried that the more electable candidates won't make it to the general election.

I don't think that is necessarily true. Indeed, as we saw last year, a tough primary can make a candidate better.

Remember Barack Obama.

He was forced to campaign in primary states that were tough for him, like Pennsylvania, Virginia and New Hampshire. Early in the campaign, he confronted ugly allegations, like his relationship with his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. His opponent raised questions about his religion.

Throughout the primary, as he faced down these attacks, his campaign collected e-mail addresses and readied its texting strategy. His monster rallies became prime fundraising opportunities. And as he traveled from state to state, he honed his message, improved his delivery and went from unlikely candidate to unstoppable force.

By the time the general election rolled around, the best John McCain could do was to wave at the upstart candidate from Illinois as Obama cruised by him in the polls and went on to claim the White House for the Democrats.

If a primary can help make Obama a better presidential candidate, it can also help Republican candidates win in the House and the Senate.

Here are some lessons Republicans can learn from the Obamaexperience as they get ready to run in contested primaries:

Run against the establishment. Most Democrats and many Republicans assumed that Hillary Clinton would be the front-runner for the Democrats.

Obama ran against that assumption, and it worked. Nothing angers voters more than the idea that their representative has been picked by the Washington establishment.

Experience can be overrated. Perhaps the most striking thing about last year's election is how little Washington experience mattered. Obama came to office with what might have been the least amount of executive experience of any president in our history. But that didn't matter to voters, who were so tired of the Bush administration that they threw their lot in with the new guys.

Find the key issue for the base, and be on the right side of it.For the Obama campaign, it was the Iraq war. He understood that the anti-war wing of the party was ascendant, and he was able to trip Clinton, who couldn't decide whether her war vote was a mistake.

For Republicans, the top issue this time around is spending. And it is not enough to talk about it. Republican candidates have to show how they would cut spending and attack the debt.

The only loyalty should be to winning. Obama showed during his primary campaign that he could be pretty calculating when it came to his friends. He spent all of three minutes throwing Wright under the bus, for example. Republican candidates can learn from that.

No matter how much these candidates might admire President Bush or Republican leaders in Congress personally, defending them or their decisions may make no sense. Loyalty is fine, but winning is better.

The central issue is not moderate vs. conservative; it's all about Washington and Wall Street vs. the rest of the country.

Obama understood that dynamic well. Candidate Obama railed against lobbyists, greedy bankers and the Washington establishment. It is still a good lesson for Republicans. Reforming the relationship between the political class and the rest of America will probably continue to be the primary concern of primary voters.

Thoughtful debate can trump angry sound bites. Obama didn't win his primary by stringing together sound bites. In fact, he put together thoughtful statements that excited and inspired his supporters.

Republican candidates, like Mike Castle, Mark Kirk and Carly Fiorina, are able to articulate fully their visions for change and reform. Campaign consultants will push for negative commercials and tough rhetoric, and of course, that has a place in any campaign.

But the American people aren't stupid, and they can handle complex, thoughtful arguments.

The new politics combines the best of the old and the new: It is now common lore that the Obama campaign put together the most impressive ground game at the presidential level in history. That all started during Obama's primary.

Primaries give our best candidates a chance to use the latest methods to transform campaigning. Conservative activists are targeting so-called moderates, especially in several high-profile Senate races across the country.

Some in the party have lamented this development, as if it were a bad thing for the party. But I take a counterview. A good primary can make our candidates better, make their messages stronger, make their operations more modern and make our team even more ready to take on the Democrats in the next election.

A tough primary worked for Barack Obama. Next year, it may work for the Republicans.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Feehery.