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“Republicans have to provide the rank-and-file with information ammo, and we have to learn to look past the single mindedness of the current battle and develop strategies to win the war.”
BY: B. Keith Plunkett
The three initiatives coming up on the November ballot in Mississippi are conservative red meat. It’s that simple. They will drive conservative voters to the polls and give Republicans an opportunity to control both the House and Senate for the first time in over 130 years in Mississippi.
The campaign for the Personhood Amendment has been a well-run, well-marketed machine thanks to the group YesOn26. Events have been publicized and the message has been effectively spread to all corners of the state with pinpoint accuracy. Part of this is the cultural upper hand provided by being in a Bible Belt state. Republicans seeking office have whole-heartedly aligned themselves with the campaign that is expected to eventually challenge Roe v Wade.
Voter ID and Eminent Domain have support, too. Albeit a little less rabid than the YesOn26 crowd.
The State of Mississippi and initiative supporters will likely have lengthy court challenges to deal with following the easy passage of all three measures this November.
The hard work of many a conservative foot-soldier helped put these issues on the ballot that will do well in providing incentive to get Republican voters out on November 8. But, when it comes to providing clear leadership for candidates and supporters with messaging on the all important budget items, our state GOP leaders have fallen short.
Traditional fundraisers have been aplenty. I have received numerous invitations to attend party’s and dinners to help the State Party fund it’s operations. But, what does this money go to do? Where is it being spent, and on what? Apparently not in defending the all important glue that Republicans say binds them together: fiscal discipline.
Governor Barbour called a special commission to study PERS last month. The commission and Republicans are taking big punches from the message being put out by the Alliance of State Employees and other pro-state employee groups. Those groups are ruling the roost when it comes to getting out their message and getting it to influencers.
Did Governor Barbour think Mississippi Republicans would win this home-brewed battle based on his personality alone? Certainly the chairman of the group, George Schloegel, must think so. Schloegel’s defense of the PERS Commission’s work has been little more than hero worship of the governor, and has been very short on points about the job the commission will do. In his defense, it appears that he hasn’t been given the tools or the support to face-off against the groups now coming after him and the commission.
Barbour’s naming of the PERS Commission, like his abandoned presidential bid, seems to lack “fire-in-the-belly” focus. However, due to his term-limited status it is ultimately not his game to play and win. It’s those that will follow him.
And that’s a battle that it increasingly appears Republicans are going to lose.
Why? Because the same forces that aligned to oust long serving Republicans in the House and Senate during the primaries over MAEP funding–the teachers unions, the Superintendents Association, and the Parents Campaign–have already aligned with the State Employee groups and their messaging has begun. Pick up a paper this week and check out the Letters to the Editor. You’re guaranteed to find at least one teacher or state retiree spouting off the same misinformation: the PERS Commission is “intending” to cut retirement benefits.
From the beginning state leaders have said that they had no interest in doing anything to change benefits for those currently in the system. Many of those same leaders have said they will protect the 13th check, or the guaranteed 3% COLA. Yet the half-hearted message has barely put a dent in the opposition claims, and it has been poorly communicated. State employee’s continue to crow about the certain demise of their ability to retire in dignity with little information out there to counter the claim.
The phrase “intention to cut” has been used so frequently that anyone paying close attention and who reads the tea leaves of political messaging knows this is a result of an organized effort. A lie unchallenged becomes the truth, and so far conservatives haven’t done much to mount a challenge.
Look for this same messaging effort to begin regarding MAEP funding, the other big state funding issue–in fact, the biggest–after November 8. Be prepared for charter schools and consolidation of services to be demonized with great regularity. Look for Superintendents to whip teachers into a frenzy about the possibility of school consolidation.
Let’s face it; the PERS Commission is a farce. Not because it isn’t needed, but because there was no preparation for the message that had to be sent to defend the work. The Governor’s spokesperson was recently quoted as saying the commission could also look at SLRP, the retirement provided to legislators. Commission chairman Shloegel said he was unaware of the quote or of the ability of the commission to look at SLRP.
Confusion? Maybe. Lack of communication? Probably. No forward-thinking messaging strategy? Definitely.
A messaging strategy would have reduced the confusion and the lack of communication. It certainly would have, at the very least, given those charged with the job of serving on the PERS Commission a better idea of expectations. Moreover, it would have given the conservative talking heads information to help disseminate to the masses. Governor Barbour is blaming the media, but the truth is the media haven’t been given the information they need to make the case for tinkering with the retirement system.
By any standard comparison, SLRP is a much sweeter deal than PERS. It sticks out like a sore thumb. Had any of the commission members and the Governor’s office sat down and worked out a communications strategy they would have been prepared for this. The lack of forward thinking shows Governor Barbour and his staff didn’t take the PERS Commission work seriously. Maybe they’re all too busy lining up other work for next year. Now, the PERS Commission looks to have been nothing more than political grandstanding. Personality politics got ahead of practicality, and left the next generation of Republican leadership holding the bag.
Without a drastic turn of events, the commission will either make no recommendations worth following or, if they do, those recommendations will wither on the vine stuck in some committee in both houses of the legislature. It will happen out of fear, and a lack of organized effort to give people the information they need to understand exactly what is being proposed. In that void will step the pro-spending, pro-state worker crowd with tragic stories about state retirees being kicked out onto the street.
The state employee groups are out in force sending up the warning flags. Where is the “fiscal discipline leaders”? Where does the state GOP stand on helping send out a firm message to counter the misinformation? They’re busy raising money to win elections. That’s great. But, thanks in part to the ill-timed, poorly conceived and unorganized PERS Commission, that job just got harder. This election is now more than a popularity contest based on personalities and the “R” next to a persons name. It’s no longer just about wedge issues and local politics. It’s now also a directive on PERS and SLRP, and with a large voting bloc looking forward to state retirement, that should be a worry for Republicans.
The election should be a call to change the status quo based on winning the battle of ideas. Except for the before mentioned ballot initiatives, and a few claims of principled “fiscal conservatism”, these ideas are missing from the conversation.
With the PERS battle lost, the question becomes how far behind conservatives will be when the same groups begin throwing that weight behind the argument to fully fund MAEP–another sacred cow.
Because of redistricting being punted to 2012, and the probability that it will be further kicked to the courts, lawmakers could be forced to run again next year. If so, will the state GOP be outflanked again due to poor message planning? Will Republican gains–if there are any this year–be reduced to rubble during those elections as the Parents Campaign, superintendents and teachers tee off on anyone who dared not vote to fully fund MAEP?
Why are Republicans working to put fresh new faces in office, then doing nothing to keep the opposition from putting a target on their backs?
Unless the Mississippi GOP becomes a party of practical conservative ideas and solutions, instead of a party of semi-principled personalities, then the tide can and will turn very quickly. The main principle for the GOP right now appears to be little more than winning elections, but it must go deeper if we really believe what we say we believe. It must be about practical and workable solutions. Otherwise, the new blood GOP legislators are no more prepared to implement conservative policy than any other legislator before them.
One thing is certain. The pro-spending, pro-status quo message of the state employees is winning the messaging war. There is no organized effort out there right now to counter it. Mississippi Republicans say they are about people providing solutions, not government. But it is the other side that is working to get out their message. On spending, GOP candidates, current office holders and leadership appear to be waiting for someone else to do the talking for them. They are hoping not to dash their own political ambitions by stepping on the tail of the behemoth state employee groups. Timidity will get us nowhere.
Where are the conservative groups, the pro-fiscal discipline groups, the small-government groups, the TEA Partiers? They are either non-existent, underfunded, or their allegiances are being divided and money divvied up by consultants to play in the political trenches of the current elections.
Repeating the phrase “Mississippi is a conservative state” doesn’t put principles into practice. Times may be good for Republicans in Mississippi these days. But, pretty window dressing doesn’t negate the need for nuts and bolts maintenance.
Democrats in Mississippi don’t walk around with a scarlet “D” sewn onto their coats. For the most part, Mississippi Democrats as a whole aren’t as far to the left as their national counterparts, and those that are know better than to come out and say it. But, they don’t have to. They can use issues like state retirement and school funding to drive the conversation in their direction without worry about the wedge issues turning votes away.
Republicans have to provide the rank-and-file with information ammo, and we have to learn to look past the single mindedness of the current battle and develop strategies to win the war.
Keith Plunkett is the CEO of Horizon Media Marketing, a Political Consulting and Communications Strategy firm. He lives in Flora, Mississippi with his wife and two sons.