Norquist on US Politics

When Americans for Tax Reform asked me if I would like to catch up with their President, Grover Norquist, in Sydney for half an hour to talk about US politics, I didn’t hesitate to say “hell yes”. Grover is one of the most influential and connected people on the right of politics in the US, and arguably the most powerful lobbyist in the “vast right wing conspiracy”.

We ended up actually chatting for an hour and a half, and I got some fascinating insights into how things are being positioned there. The chat was on the record, so I can blog some of the insights. I’ll try and categorise them:

US House

This is the key target for the 2010 mid terms. Not the Senate, not the Governorships but retaking the House. With that you get the Speakership and the ability to influence (downwards) spending and tax plans. Many of the House candidates have signed a no tax hikes pledge.

They need 39 seats to take the majority. Currently the number of net pick ups could be in the 50s, so it is looking relatively probable.

US Senate

The Republicans have 41 seats at the moment. There are around five seats they are highly likely to pick up, and another five that they could pick up. Gaining 51 would get the majority and control of the agenda.

However as 60 votes are needed for a cloture motion, gaining the majority is not as important as in the House.

The big challenge at the moment is that with only 41 seats, the Republicans have to hold all 41 Senators to prevent something going to the vote. That makes life very hard for the Senators in more liberal states such as Maine.

If the Republicans get to even 46 seats, that gives them a lot more flexibility to allow Senators in marginal states to vote more in line with their state’s wishes, enhancing their chances of re-election.

Now 51 would be nice to get, but that is not the real target. The target is 61 seats by 2014. Is this impossible? Not at all – look at the makeup of the seats coming up.

In 2010 around 40 seats are up for election – around 20 held by Republicans and 20 by Democrats. This means in 2012 and 2014there will be approx 30 seats up for election each time – and 20/30 will be Democrat holds and only 10/30 Republican holds.

Also remember that 2006 was the swing against Bush mid terms, when previously Republican states went Democrat. They will all be up in 2012.

So they are planning a long-term game, where they can end up not only in the majority, but with a super-majority that can force votes.


They are looking to pick up quite a few states. Around 25 states have implemented their proposal to list basically all Government expenditure in an online searchable database. Several candidates who are leading in the polls have pledged to do this also, so eventually they hope it will cover almost all states and then the federal government.

I’d like to see such a policy back home – for central and local government. Have all payments over say $1,000 listed on the Internet and let a nation of armchair auditors get to work scrutinizing what their taxes are spent on.

Sarah Palin

Grover shares my view that she will probably not stand for President in 2012. She is making more money and doing very well in her current role as a commentator and power figure.

We talked about whether she has become a de facto leader of the Tea Party. The best way to describe it is that she is not a leader in an organizational sense but she is the endorser-in-chief. If she endorses a candidate in a race, then it focuses massive attention and potential energy and activists on that candidate.  Now it doesn’t mean they automatically go on to win their primary – some of her endorsements have lost. What it comes down to is whether the endorsed candidate is ready and capable of using her endorsement to gain activists and supporters.

The Tea Party

This is still very much a grassroots movement. There is no national hierarchy or structure. In fact Norquist said it is better to think of it as a brand – such as Reagan Republicans or Goldwater Conservatives. What they represent is in fact the fifth wave of “entrants” into the Republican party – others were the Goldwater conseratives, the Pat Robertson religious right etc etc. These are the fiscal conservatives.

Also worth noting that many Tea Party people are not registered republicans, but independents.

So thinking of the Tea Party as a symbol of identification or brand, rather than a formal party or organisation is a good thing to remember.

We talked about the tension between whether one should go for the more moderate electable candidates, or the more “fiscally pure” candidates who may end up not winning the seat in the general election.

ATR do their own endorsements and they do not always match those of the “tea party”. In several seats unreliable incumbents have lost to challengers, and the challenger is looking likely to win the seat in November. So that has been very successful. Delaware stands out as the obvious example where the Republicans are now very unlikely to win the race, after Mike Castle was defeated for the nomination.

Norquist said that Castle lost because he was unwilling to modify any of his positions, to reassure activists he was worth electing. If he had been willing to do that, he would have won easily. He compares it to McCain. McCain beat off a challenger because he moved more towards the Republican base on issues such as cap and trade.


The challenge for the Republicans is that a generic Republican candidate would beat Obama according to the polls, but once you start naming names Obama leads. Norquist says though that the primary campaign season can and will change this, as candidates become more nationally known.

Romney is the front runner for now. As I said previously Palin not expected to run. Huckabee may stand again also.

Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota is a solid contender. He was McCain’s choice for VP before they went for Palin. Texas Governor Rick Perry has solid conservative backing also.

Newt Gingrich would like to be President and would like to run, but may struggle for some support as having led the Republican to victory in 1994, he failed to reduce government spending much. Grover made the point that it is useful to Newt’s broadcasting career to remain a presidential contender, and he won’t pull out early if he does.

Bobby Jindal of Louisiana is very popular and would be very acceptable. He is young so his time may be in the future but Norquist says having him on the ticket as Vice-President would be a smart move.

Haley Barbour of Mississipi is another “acceptable” candidate. He is a former RNC Chair and lobbyist, so may struggle for public appeal outside his state. Norquist said that he would be an ideal Chief of Staff to the President, which is an interesting possibility. Barbour, incidentally, is good mates with former National Party President John Slater, through their shared involvement with the IDU. So we might have a useful link to the White House of Barbour ended up in that role.

Another potential contender is Meg Whitman, if she wins the California Governorship. If you start with 10% of the electoral vote in your rocket, you have to be a contender.

Chris Christie is another possibility. A very popular Governor.

A Whitman/Jindal ticket could be very electorally popular. Far too early to speculate really, but it could happen.

Talking US politics,  Obama has just had Chief of Staff resign, to stand for Mayor of Chicago. I’m not sure many people would go from running the US Government to running Chicago, but I guess the perks are better in Chicago 🙂

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