On the heels of two disastrous election cycles, the conventional wisdom was that Republicans were doomed to wander in the wilderness for decades unless their party underwent serious changes. Even on the right, there quickly emerged a cottage industry of conservative self-help books dedicated to helping the GOP rebuild and rebrand.
The prescriptions varied depending on the authors’ policy prescriptions: embrace big government or repudiate compassionate conservatism, rethink the national security policy of the Bush years or return to the approach of the first Bush term, jettison polarizing social issues or use them to build bridges into minority communities. But there was some rough consensus that the party needed to formulate an economic agenda for the middle class, come to terms with its past failures and find its voice on issues like health care.
Republicans have done almost none of these things. No promising national leader has come forward with a stature approaching Barack Obama’s. Quite the contrary, Republicans have recently watched the implosion of South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and the resignation of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. The party remains much more readily identifiable by what it is against rather than what it is for, and moderate figures like Colin Powell continue to lament its capture by “a very far right wing” base.
Beneath the prognostications of doom and gloom, however, Republicans are showing real signs of life. The GOP is heavily favored to take the governorship in New Jersey this year, where Republican Chris Christie leads by double digits in some polls. Republicans are slight favorites in the Virginia governor’s race, despite an increasing Democratic trend in the Old Dominion over the past few elections.
If the 2010 elections were held today, Republicans would pick up a Senate seat in Connecticut (if the Democrats don’t get Chris Dodd first) and have an even shot of reclaiming Arlen Specter’s in Pennsylvania — the latter by running a former president of the Club for Growth. Republicans would even win a one-on-one race against Gov. Deval Patrick in Massachusetts, one of the nation’s bluest states.
According to both NPR and Rasmussen Reports, Republicans now lead in the generic congressional ballot. National Republicans have succeeded in getting their top choices to run for Senate in Illinois and Florida. Delaware may not be far behind. Just this week, they managed to nudge their most vulnerable incumbent, Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky, into retirement, improving their chances in that state.
House Republicans are faring even better at candidate recruitment. They have a target-rich environment, as the Democratic majority is padded with the votes of red-state congressmen who in 2006 and 2008 won districts where Obama was unpopular back when his national approval ratings were above 60 percent. Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), chairman of the GOP’s congressional campaign committee, boasts that he will make a play for 80 Democratic-held seats next year.
Congressional Quarterly‘s analysis makes clear that Republicans are longshots to retake even the House at this point. But unlike many of the Democrats representing districts carried by John McCain, most of the 34 Republicans holding seats in Obama districts have weathered tough election cycles before; 2010 will be a very different climate than 2006 or 2008.
That’s why the Democrats’ best pickup opportunities are in Obama districts where the incumbents are not running for re-election: Mark Kirk in Illinois, Jim Gerlach in Pennsylvania, John McHugh in New York, and maybe soon Michael Castle in Delaware. There are many more Walt Minnicks and Frank Kratovils — junior Democrats representing conservative-leaning areas — in the House than Joseph Caos.
Far from heeding the centrists’ advice, Republicans have followed a strategy of opposition to most of Obama’s major initiatives: the stimulus, cap and trade, health care, and even Sonia Sotomayor. In the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) voted against a Supreme Court nominee for the first time in their careers.
With a stimulus that has failed to stimulate, a health care plan that is starting to tank in the polls, and politically tone-deaf Democratic forays into racial politics, opposition has so far been a profitable strategy for Republicans. It may continue to pay dividends. Whatever yesterday’s deal between Henry Waxman and the Blue Dogs does for the prospects of health care reform, pass or fail it makes Democrats in marginal districts vote on tax increases, a bigger budget deficit, and mandatory abortion coverage.
The danger of an opposition-based strategy that doesn’t address any of the GOP’s long-term problems is obvious: if the economy begins to recover, if Obama’s approval ratings improve following a major legislative victory Republicans are still powerless to deny him, if the party peaks in 2010 and forces the president to tack to the center before running for re-election, Republicans won’t be left with much to say.
Bill Clinton’s liberal overreach doomed the Democrats in 1994. Triangulation, and a Republican Party that couldn’t find more inspiring leadership than what Bob Dole had to offer, saved them in 1996.
Yet even with those risks, it is possible that the Republican Party’s epitaphs following 2006 and 2008 will look as premature as the talk of a permanent Republican majority was after 2004.