Can the GOP Find a Path Forward?

In much the same way the Democrats started banging their heads against the wall after the disappointing 2004 election cycle, when the hated George W. Bush won re-election and the GOP improved its majorities in both the House and the Senate, the Republicans have gone through a similar concussion-inducing exercise following the disappointing 2012 election. Arguably, however, the GOP is better positioned today than the Democrats were after the 2004 defeat.

Both the Democrats in 2004 and the Republicans in 2012 were facing the role of minority party in the Senate with 45 seats, the Democrats having lost four seats in the 2004 elections and the Republicans two in 2012. In the U.S. House races, however, the GOP held its majority in 2012, while losing eight net seats, to wind  up with 234 seats to 201 for the Democrats.

After picking up 63 seats in 2010, to only lose eight in the subsequent cycle when the president won re-election fairly decisively (by 4% and 5 million votes) was not a bad performance. Due to effective redistricting after the 2010 census, particularly in Pennsylvania and Ohio, the Republicans maintained their House majority in 2012, despite losing the overall House popular vote nationally by 1%. The median House district (#218) was a 52% Republican district in 2012. It will not be a slam dunk for the Democrats, however effectively the president and his media allies demagogue the GOP, to win back control of the House in 2014.

In the Senate, there is far more potential for the GOP to pick up seats in 2014 than exists for the Democrats, though the two most recent Senate election cycles in 2010 and 2012 suggest the Democrats are far better focused on nominating candidates who can win in the states where they are running and who will not self-destruct with inane comments on divisive social issues. Finally, the Republicans also hold 30 of the country’s 50 governor’s chairs, and are the majority party in more state legislative bodies than the Democrats are.

The 2012 elections demonstrated that the Republicans could be successfully portrayed by their opponents as a party largely made up of old white male voters who are protective of  the wealthy and big corporations and hostile to the aspirations of  minority groups, gays, and women. It mattered little that every one of these characterizations is largely or completely false. The GOP provided enough ammunition to keep some of these arguments alive.

When Rush Limbaugh trashed Sandra Fluke, he elevated the Georgetown law student from a one-day political non-entity to a cause.  The Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock discussions of rape and abortion damaged Mitt Romney and other GOP candidates. Mitt Romney’s comment about the 47% dependency rate suggested a callousness to the needy.

The reality is that the GOP has far more minority group members who have been nominated and won in state elections than the Democrats have -- governors in New Mexico, Nevada, Louisiana, and South Carolina; senators in Texas and Florida; and an appointed senator from South Carolina (the only African American senator, who was welcomed after his elevation from the House by an almost complete media blackout). The Democrats have only a New Jersey senator, a Hawaii senator, and the governor of Massachusetts who are members of minority groups. By and large, the Democrats are afraid to run minority group candidates statewide, and only nominate them to run in congressional districts where the minority makes up a majority of voters.

The Republicans’ position in Congress is stronger today than the one the Democrats held after 2004. However, it is, at best, a position that will enable them to be part of the legislative process, not to dictate it.  The GOP behaved after the 2010 election as if it could dictate terms to the other party, which still held control of the Senate and the White House and had a media megaphone to broadcast its side of the debate. The overreach, particularly on the debt-ceiling debate, damaged the Republican Party.

The end-of-year resolution to the “fiscal cliff crisis” turned out better and was much more of a win for the GOP than a defeat, at least in terms of the substance of what was accomplished. If one compares the tax rates now in effect  for 99% of the population, including estate taxes and taxes on dividends, to where they were before the Bush tax cuts went into effect with their ten-year life in 2001, they are substantially lower (to the tune of $3.6 trillion over ten years) and are now permanent, without any more expiration dates that can be gamed by the president.