After the 2006 election losses Republicans did some soul-searching. They held conferences, gave speeches, and went on talk shows. They concluded: we were not conservative enough.
In fact, in 2006 they did fine with conservatives but lost the independent vote by a two to one margin. Certainly the unpopular Iraq War (which then was a quagmire) and the Congressional corruption scandals played a part in their losses, but it was hardly too much moderation that was the nub of the problem.
Again, in 2008, Republicans took losses across the board. They got a fraction of the Hispanic vote, lost their last New England congressman, saw more western Senate seats flip to the Democrats and watched their share of the electorate drop to 28.7%. They lost the independent vote by 8%. Yet once again you hear the call to return to “conservative roots” or to adhere more strongly to “core principles.” That seems to miss the mark — by miles.
In fact, the problem is that the GOP is approaching Dixiecrat status — not in belief, but in political reach. Tom Davis (R-VA) knows a thing or two about that. The congressman from affluent Fairfax, Virginia, a D.C. suburb, announced his retirement after seeing his wife lose her state senate seat in a wave of blue. He has witnessed his district vote in successive elections for two Democratic U.S. senators and the Democratic presidential nominee. In a recent interview he said, “We’ve become a regional party, basically become a white, rural, regional party, and not a national party. And we’re going to have to retool ourselves.”
That poses an acute problem considering that rural whites are an ever-shrinking proportion of the electorate. North Carolina is symptomatic of the Republicans’ problems. Senator Elizabeth Dole lost, as did the GOP presidential nominee John McCain. A combination of transplanted urban professionals, young voters, and African Americans formed a coalition that turned this formerly very red state to blue. If the Republicans cannot win North Carolina, what is their future?
It is not only taking place there. Among the country’s fast-growing counties the Democrats also made inroads. Politico reported:
Four years after George W. Bush underscored the Republican dominance of these places by winning 97 of the 100 fastest-growing counties, [Barack] Obama won 15 of them in 2008 and dramatically scaled back the GOP’s margin of victory in many more, according to a Politico analysis of unofficial election results in the Census Bureau’s 100 counties that grew the fastest between April 2000 and July 2007.
Obama won the three largest of these high-growth counties: Riverside County in Southern California, Las Vegas’ Clark County, and the Research Triangle’s Wake County, NC.
The only place where Republicans are flourishing in national elections is the Deep South. There is reason to fear that if Republicans do not alter their present course they will be relegated to a permanent minority in Congress and be stuck below the 200 electoral vote mark in presidential elections.
Given all that, it is hard to see how “returning to core values” enhances the Republicans’ appeal. If that phrase is code for “limited government,” it seems to lack an audience. At present, there is not much clamoring for fiscal austerity, at least not at the expense of other issues. Meanwhile, virulent opposition to immigration reform did the party no good in New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, and California — which all went Democratic at the presidential level and two of which flipped U.S. Senate seats from Republican to Democrat.
And emphasis on social conservatism does not appear sufficient to affect votes for federal offices, even in states where voters approve of socially conservative policies (e.g., Florida voted overwhelmingly against a gay marriage proposal but for Barack Obama). The challenge for Republicans is to maintain a distinctive alternative to liberalism but appeal to a broad cross-section of voters, both ideologically and geographically. Part of that is a policy challenge, but much depends on personnel.
Republicans have had successes throughout the country, but at the state level. David Broder pointed to winning Republican governors in Vermont, Utah, Indiana, and North Dakota. He wrote:
This election cost Republicans their last sitting House member from New England, but three of the six states — Vermont, Connecticut, and Rhode Island — are governed by Republicans. When I asked Vermont’s Douglas how he explained it, he said that his fellow governors “put progress ahead of partisanship, as I’ve done here. We have generous social programs, but we also have fiscal responsibility. We’re the only state without a constitutional requirement to balance our budget, but we don’t need it. Our deficit is zero.”
Utah’s Huntsman said that another secret of the Republican governors’ success is: “We listen closely to our constituents and reflect what we hear in both policy formulation and execution. And governors have to work both sides of the aisle, even in a state like Utah, so we don’t get caught up in the hyper-partisanship of Washington.”
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour believes, on the basis of personal experience, that governors can be the catalyst for party revival. “When I became chairman of the Republican National Committee after Bill Clinton’s election, I quickly found that our governors were the most popular, influential people in the party,” he told me last week. “When the other party has the White House and both houses of Congress, as they did then and will now, the only place people can actually see Republican ideas being implemented is in the states.”
So perhaps Republicans can take their cue not just from Haley Barbour, but also from Rahm Emanuel. If the former provides a guide to policy — pragmatic, relevant, a mix of fiscal sanity with effective middle-class services — the latter gives the clue on candidates. It was Emanuel, who as head of the Democratic Congressional Committee teamed up with Sen. Chuck Schumer to recruit candidates around the country to fit constituents in diverse locales. The result was two successive Congressional cycles in which attractive Democratic candidates, well-matched ideologically to their districts and states, made substantial gains, and thereby lifted the Democrats to comfortable majorities in the House and Senate.
So the Republicans have their work cut out for them, just as the Democrats did following their losses in 2000 and 2004. Devise center-right policies on bread-and-butter issues to woo back swing voters. Look to the governors for policy innovation. But politics does not operate in a vacuum or in the newpaper columns of pundits. Ultimately the GOP must find candidates who may diverge from the party “line” but can win over voters outside conservative strongholds. It is not an impossible task but it will be that much more difficult if Republicans maintain a tone of class resentment, paranoia, and vitriol and adhere to policy positions which are either extraneous or offensive to large segments of the electorate. The choice is up to them: become the Dixiecrats of the 21st century or forge a new Republican majority.