But Atwater guerrilla warfare ended in the late 1980s. Since then, the GOP looks to have become a collection of naive choirboys. And they've watched as advocacy groups like MoveOn.org have combined forces with any number of Democratic-leaning blogs to fuel virulent, powerful political attacks against GOP candidates in the last weeks of the 2010 campaign.
Today's Republicans have to accept that all things are fair in love and war - and politics is its own form of warfare.
The GOP showed hints that it understood this when, during the George W. Bush years, it did a masterful job of leveraging off of the issue of terror threats to boost the party's standing with voters. But all the while, those organizations that are left-of-center on the partisan spectrum made quantum leaps of progress in organizing and doing opposition research. They learned how to feed this excavated information to a press that was more numerous and diverse than ever - and so more willing than ever to gobble up the information provided.
This isn't to say Republicans this year aren't running attack ads in some of the tough races around the country. They are. But they are being outpaced overall in this regard by the Democrats, and for a simple reason. Polling numbers - now as much as ever this year - are showing that the GOP likely will win back control of the U.S. House, possibly the U. S. Senate and definitely many governors races. So the Democrats more and more are having to turn to ads that sometimes have gotten personal. They're trying any way they can to beat the Republicans back to a more vulnerable position.
In some places, it's working. GOP U.S. Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell of Delaware will now forever be known as the teen witch of yesteryear. Her campaign missteps - plus a little help from the Democrats in highlighting them - have her trailing in the polls by as much as 20 percent.
In California, Republican gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman has been slow-roasted in the news cycle over accusations that she once hired illegal aliens. But the fallout over this seems to be clearing up.
Elsewhere, the Democrats' attack strategy may or may not work. In 2010, a Republican candidate for Georgia governor should win going away. But former Rep. Nathan Deal has been unable to shake media talk about his alleged ethical lapses. Former Gov. Roy Barnes, the Democratic nominee, has played up these allegations with an insistent paid media campaign. While Barnes continues to trail in the polls, one has to wonder how many more ethics hits Deal can take and still cruise to a comfortable win.
A similar scenario is unfolding in Florida. Republican Marco Rubio, the U.S. Senate nominee, looks headed to an impressive win over both Democrat Kendrick Meek and independent Charlie Crist, the current governor (and now an ex-Republican). Despite Rubio's apparent success, however, the governor's race in that state looks like it could be a photo finish.
Republican nominee Rick Scott was once CEO of Columbia HCA when that company paid an enormous fine for defrauding the government. Now Florida voters are being reminded of that persistently by the Democrats.
In Florida, the powers behind the scenes in elections are always the same. The physicians and the greater corporate community are arrayed on one side. On the other are the trial lawyers and unions. The trial lawyers are especially powerful in Florida, although they don't always get their way. (As a lawyer, I can write that attorneys think they know everything about politics. They don't.)
The Florida governor's race is up in the air, and may come to this: Will the populist popularity of Rubio and the dissatisfaction with President Obama be enough for Scott to win, or will the attack ads against him make the difference?
In this boisterous campaign 2010, it's been a bit startling to witness just how ill-prepared the Republicans generally have been to deal with what has probably been inevitable all along. That is, many Democratic candidates launching increasingly savage ads against Republicans, as perhaps the only way left for the Democrats to make some of these races closer.
Does this mean the GOP is just a bunch of swell guys and gals? Or is it just that the expert political warriors of the Republican golden years have all up and gone? Maybe it says something positive about the character of so many Republican operatives. Maybe, too, it suggests that they might want to see about sharpening their political combat skills.
Matt Towery of Atlanta iheads the polling and political information firm InsiderAdvantage.