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Editorial: The Republican Brand Is a Problem

Yes, it’s true what New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told Vermont Republicans at a recent fundraiser: Candidates matter. A compelling contender can induce voters to stray outside their partisan comfort zone.

Christie speaks from experience. He is the governor of a state that is as solidly blue as just about any other, including Vermont. He also happens to be regarded by some as a potentially strong presidential candidate, someone who could broaden the party’s ever-narrowing base. And Vermont Republicans could use a pep talk: With the exception of Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, they’ve been shut out of the most prominent offices in the state and don’t seem to hold much prospect for wandering in from the political wilderness any time soon. If they can’t figure out how to persuade a significant number of Vermont Democrats and independents to vote for their candidates, they’ll remain pretty much irrelevant.

But what Christie says may be significantly less true on the national level. Consider the advice he dispensed to his fellow Republicans, “See, there are some people running around in the press right now saying our party has a problem with its brand, that we’re not relating to folks. . . . It’s not our party’s problem; it’s our candidates’ problem.”

Sorry, but there’s a brand problem as well. Right now, congressional Republicanism is strongly associated with the myriad wrongheaded crusades of the extreme right — obstructionism, knee-jerk opposition to enhanced government revenue, callous shrinking of programs that serve the vulnerable, know-nothing indifference to the findings of science, anti-immigration . . . the list goes on. While it is easy to imagine an attractive Republican candidate receiving support from Democratic voters when running for a state office — think former governor Jim Douglas — it is anything but plausible when considering a race for the U.S. House or Senate. It doesn’t really matter how attractive a particular candidate is, it would be foolhardy for a Democrat to ignore the consequences of bolstering the chances of congressional Republicans doing mischief.

Consider the race that might be shaping up in New Hampshire for the Senate seat now held by Democratic incumbent Jeanne Shaheen. Capable, competent and intelligent as Shaheen may be, we know of few people who feel passionately about her political record. She’s certainly done nothing in her first term to earn her a reputation for being indispensable. Meanwhile, a couple of Republican candidates — one declared, the other potential — offer something that may well attract Democratic voters’ attention. The declared candidate, businessman and former state senator Jim Rubens of Etna, has embraced a revenue-neutral carbon tax as a centerpiece of his campaign — a position that is considerably more enlightened and courageous than many Democrats’. And Scott Brown, former U.S. senator from Massachusetts, is regarded as enough of a likely candidate to attract a pre-emptive strike from the gun lobby. Any Republican who has earned the enmity of that powerful interest group deserves serious attention from the many Democrats who regard gun control as a priority.

But any New Hampshire Democrat considering voting for either one of those candidates in a race against Shaheen would also have to confront an unnerving reality: Replacing a Democrat might swing the now closely divided Senate into Republican hands. Regardless of how tempting it might be to send a strong voice to Washington to advocate for enlightened energy policy or gun laws, a Senate under the control of the current Republican Party would be one that threatened to do as much damage as the House.

Congress’ recent approval of a compromise budget and House Speaker John Boehner’s defiance of his Tea Party wing to get it passed give some indication that this may all change. Let’s hope so, because as things stand now, it doesn’t matter how good a Republican candidate for Congress is, that person has a brand problem. A serious one.