GOP’s secret blue-state playbook: The trick they use to stay alive

As Republicans set their sights on another big race, Christie, Rudy and others offer a cynical road map. Beware!

Topics: Rudy Giuliani, Chris Christie, Joe Lhota, New York Mayor, 2013 Elections, Editor's Picks, Peter King, R-N.Y., Republicans, Blue States, New Jersey, New York, Northeast, ,

GOP’s secret blue-state playbook: The trick they use to stay aliveRudy Giuliani, Chris Christie, Peter King (Credit: AP/Rick Rycroft/Rich Schultz/Harry Hamburg)

Things don’t look so hot for Joe Lhota, the Republican running for mayor in New York City. While his party won several mayoral races in recent decades, Democrats now outnumber Republicans there by 6-1. Two new polls show him trailing by 40 points. And, unfortunately, no bonus points are awarded for looking like Louis C.K.

But Lhota’s dismal odds do not mean it’s impossible for Republicans, in general, to win in blue states today. Gov. Chris Christie looks like he’s cruising to reelection in New Jersey, and Pete King, a Long Island congressman, continues to win with ease. They’re doing this as liberal areas of the country, particularly in the Northeast, are getting more liberal — just as the national Republican Party is getting more conservative. So, what’s their secret?

Obviously, each district and politician has its own dynamics. And it takes many smart moves to defy demographic destiny. But among them, here’s one that blue-state Republicans — from Christie and King, to Rudy Giuilani — have been using for years to survive in hostile territory: Each has publicly picked a few strategic, rhetorical, largely non-policy disputes with his own party that made him seem independent and “above politics” – while continuing to pursue a conservative agenda all the while.

For Christie, of course, the most famous example was his willingness to turn on national Republicans and praise President Obama’s leadership in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. This isn’t to say his working with the president post-Sandy was necessarily cynical or entirely strategic, but the subsequent photo ops, arcade dates and bromance were brilliant political theater. That’s because they helped Christie look moderate, even though (contrary to the view of many Democrats) he is absolutely a conservative. Among other things, he’s defunded Planned Parenthood, regularly beat up on middle-class public workers, frequently screamed at teachers, and opposed pay equity for women.

But he also had the good sense and savvy to not only praise the president’s disaster response – a mostly non-ideological issue that in no way reflected an end to the governor’s pursuit of right-wing goals – but also criticize Republicans who blocked storm aid for ravaged areas.

This has had the effect of softening Democrats’ views of him, both in New Jersey – where he’s currently favored to win his reelection by some 20 points – but nationally, where he’s often viewed as a moderate.

Giuliani was another practitioner of this trick. While the mayor was culturally liberal on several issues, he pursued conservative policing practices, racial polarization strategies and tax policies not necessarily in step with the city’s electorate. But in a memorable act of “apostasy” to the Republican Party, he endorsed Democrat Mario Cuomo for governor in 1994 over George Pataki. The conventional wisdom was that this backfired on the mayor when Cuomo lost, but the message the move sent early in his tenure was clear: He was above politics and not some right-wing tyrant to be feared (examinations of his actual record be damned).

Perhaps the greatest practitioner of this playbook, however, is King, the Long Island congressman. One of the few surviving GOP House members in the region, he has compiled a pretty conservative record (earning a 75 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union, 81 percent on taxes and spending from the National Taxpayers Union, and 0 percent from NARAL). But he’s also managed to pick a series of meaningless fights with Republican boogeymen that have helped carve out an image of moderation.

Most recently, King (whose district was redrawn to be more Republican-friendly) made a big announcement that he wouldn’t attend a fundraiser that included Ted Cruz, citing the latter’s vote against storm aid. That followed an equally hollow call months earlier for donors to ignore Marco Rubio for similar reasons, and the national Republican Party before it. And those were all preceded by a fight with conservative tax crusader Grover Norquist, in which King garnered headlines for bashing the right-wing icon as a “low-life” – all while continuing to vote as a solid Republican.

Add to that a friendship with the Clintons that the congressman very publicly cultivated (he cannily voted against the former president’s doomed impeachment), and you’ve got the CliffsNotes to the Pete King playbook of How to Stay Alive as a Northeastern Republican. (Note: For those wondering what the political calculus was behind King’s long, impassioned crusade against deceased “low-life” and “pervert” Michael Jackson, political science has yet to advance far enough to divine such oddities.)

In the end, the success of blue-state Republicans like Christie and the others does not mean Lhota has much of a chance in November. He probably doesn’t. (After all: This.)

But, the key takeaway is that Democratic voters in other liberal districts — who think a Republican politician may seem too good to be true — may be right. Check his or her actual governing (or voting) record. That so-called moderate may just be using the Pete King playbook.

Blake Zeff is the politics editor of Salon. Email him at and follow him on Twitter at @blakezeff.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows


Loading Comments...