Overview from the CQ Researcher on the Future of the GOP

By Alan Greenblatt, March 20, 2009

As Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell is arguably the nation’s most powerful Republican. When he addressed the Republican National Committee (RNC) on Jan. 29, the Kentucky senator spoke of grim news for his party.

“Over the past two elections, we’ve lost 13 Senate seats and 51 House seats,” McConnell said. “Our most reliable voters are in decline as a percentage of the overall vote, and Democratic voter registration is on the rise.”

After Democratic Sen. Barack Obama’s historic victory last November, Republicans are now the clear minority party, and some say they could be in danger of staying in the political wilderness for a long time.

It’s tempting for Republicans to blame their problems on President George W. Bush, who left office with a 22 percent approval rating – the lowest since Gallup began polling more than 70 years ago. The litany of Bush failures is familiar: The Iraq War, now in its seventh year; the administration’s abysmal response to New Orleans’ needs during Hurricane Katrina; corruption scandals that cost the GOP support even among the party faithful.

Finally, Republicans were blamed for the fiscal crisis that erupted last September. “The economic meltdown had a profound effect on this election,” veteran Republican consultant Tony Fabrizio said in a radio interview two days after Election Day.

The result was a Democratic sweep, with Obama carrying states that had been solidly Republican for decades and racking up the largest popular vote of any Democrat since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. Having lost their congressional majorities in 2006, Republicans saw their numbers slip further in 2008.

William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, says, “Republicans were certainly hurt by the economy, but if the economy had stayed normal, they would have been hurt terrifically by the changes in geography of President Bush and his brand of Republicanism.” Frey’s point: The GOP has become largely identified with conservative social issues popular in the South and risks becoming a regional party appealing primarily to the South, parts of the Mountain West and the Great Plains.

Republicans last fall were shut out on the coasts and lost the suburbs for the first time since 1996. “As Republicans, we know that commonsense, conservative principles aren’t regional,” McConnell told the RNC. “But I think we have to admit that our sales job has been.”

But the party faces other demographic challenges: It is losing ground among minorities and the most educated voters. “The Republican Party is increasingly white, rural and old, in a country that is increasingly less of all those things,” says Jonathan Martin, who covers the party for Politico. “This is now emphatically a minority party in this country.”

Many Republicans would disagree, despite the party’s recent losses. After all, they point out, after Bush’s reelection in 2004 Republicans were talking confidently of building a “permanent majority.” “It was only a few years ago Republicans were thinking they were the natural majority in the country,” says William F. Connelly Jr., a political scientist at Washington and Lee University. “Democrats might not want to operate on that assumption too quickly.”

But Ruy Teixeira, a Democratic analyst and senior fellow at both the left-leaning Century Foundation and the liberal Center for American Progress, says things are different today. “Democrats in 2002 and 2004 still had the demographic wind at their back. Republicans don’t have that. Not only did they get clobbered, not only did they make some mistakes, but the demographic wind is in their face.”

And House Republicans in particular face big disadvantages, says John J. Pitney Jr., a political scientist at California’s Claremont McKenna College. Democrats hold 32 of the 33 House districts in which African-Americans make up 40 percent or more of the population – the only exception being a Louisiana seat where an indicted Democrat was ousted last fall. They also control 31 of the 35 mostly Hispanic seats – all but the four Florida districts dominated by Cuban-Americans, who have long favored Republicans. In addition, Democrats hold all 22 House seats in New England, and all but three of the 29 districts in New York – much of which used to be fertile GOP territory.

While there’s some overlap among those seats, they give Democrats a 103-seat head start toward the 218 needed for a majority. “If Republicans concede these districts, they have to get two-thirds of the rest, which is tough to do,” Pitney says.

Besides problems appealing to minorities and voters in the most populous parts of the country, Republicans have a hard time attracting voters under 30, two-thirds of whom voted for Obama. “People who have come of age during the last decade are the most Democratic population of any cohort,” says Gary Jabobson, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego. “That might be the most striking legacy of the Bush years in terms of the national, partisan political system.”

Then-Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan in December launched an in-house think tank, the Center for Republican Renewal. “Republicans have grown accustomed to having our party recognized as the ‘Party of Ideas,’ but we must acknowledge that many Americans today believe the party is stale and does not deserve that label,” Duncan wrote in a memo to the RNC.

But he was replaced in January by Michael Steele, a former Maryland lieutenant governor, who quickly canned the think tank. “I’m trying to avoid the use of words that start with ‘re,’ words like renewal, rebuild, recharge, re-this and re-that,” Steele wrote in a memo to RNC members. “I’m convinced we should not re-anything. Instead, we must stand proudly for the timeless principles our party has always stood for.”

So far, Steele’s argument has carried the day within the party. Republicans say the party lost its way during the Bush years by running up deficits and overspending. They say it needs to return to arguing for lower taxes and limited government.

“Liberalism’s preferred solution to working-class insecurity – making America more like Europe through a vast expansion of the tax-and-transfer state – is still unpopular with most voters,” write conservative authors Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam in their book Grand New Party.

All but three congressional Republicans opposed the $787 billion stimulus package enacted in February. The GOP’s congressional leadership has resisted Obama’s entreaties for bipartisan cooperation to help solve the economic crisis and has actively discouraged members from collaborating with Democrats.

“We will lose on legislation, but we will win the message war every day, and every week, until November 2010,” said Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C. “Our goal is to bring down approval numbers for [Speaker Nancy] Pelosi and for House Democrats. That will take repetition. This is a marathon, not a sprint.”

But so far, public opinion polls suggest Republicans are losing the message war. Obama’s approval ratings are much higher than the GOP’s, and Americans give him higher marks for dealing with the economy.

While Republicans believe they have regained their footing with a back-to-basics message on taxes and the size of government, some people say they are not reading the mood of the moment, when many Americans are looking to Washington for action in response to the economic crisis.

And while the party’s base seems content with that message, it’s not clear who speaks for the party – the congressional leadership, potential presidential aspirants such as Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, or even radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh. A recent Rasmussen survey found that 68 percent of Republicans say their party lacks a clear leader.

Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana was considered the party’s leading new star but stumbled in his first big national appearance. Although Jindal’s performance giving the Republican Party’s official response to President Obama’s Feb. 24 address to Congress was widely panned – both by liberals angered by its message and conservatives unhappy with his style – Jindal is still considered a comer in GOP circles. The former Rhodes scholar is known to be highly intelligent and has won praise through his efforts to reform Medicaid. Also, Jindal is just 37 – giving him plenty of time to make a comeback on the national stage after a weak initial outing.

Steele has sought to fill the party’s void, making near-constant media appearances. But even some RNC members have complained that he has stumbled repeatedly in his early days as titular head of the party. Two months into his tenure, however, Steele began to cut back on his media appearances in the wake of an interview with GQ in which he expressed support for abortion rights. Steele denied that that was his position. But his need to clarify a number of his public statements led party activists to say he should concentrate on the nuts-and-bolts work of rebuilding the party, such as fundraising and appointing key staff.

Asked about Steele’s performance on CNN’s “The Situation Room” on March 4, Nicolle Wallace, a former top adviser to Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, said, “At the beginning of ‘American Idol,’ there are a lot of singers and a lot of them are pretty terrible and that’s where the Republican Party is right now.

“We’re at the beginning of our season,” Wallace continued. “By the time the Republican Party has to stand before voters again, we’ll have our act together.”

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