Ex-RNC Chair Michael Steele: GOP Backing of Voter ID Laws Was 'Stupid'

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The Maryland Republican and former Democratic governor of Pennsylvania Ed Rendell had some harsh words for the party as they considered the 2012 election.

The 2012 election taught the Republican party three lessons: Invest in the grassroots. Don't insist on ideological purity. And don't introduce laws that make voters feel personally threatened.

So say television regulars former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell and former RNC Chairman Michael Steele, who weighed in on the election's takeaways at The Atlantic's Washington Ideas Forum.

"You can't put the blinders on and pretend that nothing happened" this cycle, Steele said. House seats were lost, Republicans couldn't take the Senate, and President Obama won re-election. "There was nothing status quo about this election, at all," Steele said.

 Washington Ideas Forum Conversations with leading newsmakers. A special report

This election proves that investing in the grassroots matters, Steele said. "You can run campaign commercials all day long. but you've got to get Joe Six-Pack off the ground and into the polls," he said.

Rendell and Steele agreed that Republican candidates have to be state-specific, particularly when it comes to swing states or states that lean left. "How do you win in a place like New Jersey?" Steele asked. It takes a good candidate -- like Governor Chris Christie -- and a good grassroots network, able to deliver a Republican message that resonates in a blue state.

Insistence on "ideological purity" can also hurt candidates' re-election prospects, Rendell said. He suggested that former Senator Scott Brown was vulnerable in his Massachusetts race because he was forced to vote party-line. Brown voted against confirming Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, for example.

"He did it to please Mitch McConnell," Rendell said, referring to the Senate Minority Leader. But Mitch McConnell can't ensure Brown "one vote in Massachusetts."

New voter laws passed by Republicans at the state level also hurt GOP prospects, Steele and Rendell said, because they made some voters feel that elected officials were targeting them.

"I think voter suppression tactics backfired in this election dramatically," Rendell said. In African-American churches he visited, he said, people were fired up to go to the polls because they believed their right to vote was being threatened.

"The Republican effort was not a concerted grand cabal to go out and suppress the vote. but it was highly stupid," Steele said. The new laws were interpreted as an attempt to sway the 2012 election.

When voters feel threatened by a politician, or a party, that's a problem, Steele said. The last thing a politician wants is for "voters to feel that you, as an elected official, are out to get them, and that's where it got stupid for the GOP," he said.



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Sophie Quinton is a staff reporter for National Journal.

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