Republicans will test their strength in Virginia, New Jersey, and New York today. But will the party’s conservative base or the alienated independents prevail? Plus, 6 hot races to watch today.
It’s been a year since the Republican Party was blown out in the 2008 election. On Tuesday, voters will go to the polls in Virginia and New Jersey to choose governors—the first major electoral reality-check since the Obama era began. While the party out of power traditionally makes gains in off-year and midterm elections, the GOP is facing an unusual set of contradictory signals as its rank and file head for the voting booth. How the contradictions are resolved Tuesday may speak volumes about Republicans’ chances for making major gains next year—and even reclaiming the White House in 2012.
On one hand, the GOP’s conservative base is enthusiastic and organized, leading significant protests against the Obama agenda within his first three months and helping to push his approval rating down from the high 60s after his inauguration to an average of about 50 percent today. With top flight Senate candidates entering races in Democratic strongholds like Illinois and Delaware in 2010 and some Republicans even predicting a takeover of the House, what once looked like a disastrous election cycle is an increasing source of excitement for conservatives.
The GOP is “off death row, but it’s still in solitary confinement,” says former Bush strategist Mark McKinnon.
But the GOP’s ability to capitalize on Obama’s vulnerabilities is constrained by the fact that Republicans have managed to become even less popular than they were under President George W. Bush. The party's favorability rating is at its lowest point in the most recent CNN/Opinion Research poll since the Clinton impeachment, with 36 percent of voters expressing positive opinions and 54 percent negative, versus 53 percent positive and 41 percent negative for the Democrats. In an even more historic drop, an anemic 20 percent of American voters identified as Republicans in the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, the lowest percentage since 1983. The same poll showed Democrats leading 51 percent to 39 percent in a generic congressional ballot, numbers on par with Democratic blowouts in 2006 and 2008 and in line with a broader trend in the polls toward House Democrats after a brief dip over the summer.
The results Tuesday will provide the first real clue as to which narrative is closer to reality. With Republican or conservative candidates holding leads in the polls in Virginia and New York's 23rd District and New Jersey's Democratic governor on the ropes, a clean sweep could go a long way in demonstrating that the GOP can win local races even while the national party's brand remains toxic. The Daily Beast surveyed some of the key factors weighing on the party’s fortunes—Tuesday and on through 2010.
They’re Not Democrats
With only one-fifth of Americans willing to call themselves Republicans, in theory the party should be dead on arrival in most races. But the numbers are not quite as terrible as they seem: According to University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato, although many conservatives have grown disillusioned with the national Republican Party and now identify as independents, individual Republican candidates are ultimately gaining their begrudging support simply because they offer the only opportunity to send a message against the Democratic agenda.
“I'd put it this way: The Republicans are very lucky that America is stuck with the two-party system,” Sabato told The Daily Beast. “The reason they're doing better in specific elections this year and looking toward 2010 is because they're the only real alternative to Democrats.”
But according to Sabato, a sizable number of Republican voters in the 2010 elections may not even want to return the party to power in the House or Senate so much as send a protest vote over whichever issue—health care, jobs, national security—has angered them.
“It's one thing to cut the Democratic margin in the House and Senate as will likely happen, it's quite another to put Republicans back in charge,” he said.
There’s Room for Growth
The Democrats won most of the seats within reach in 2006 and 2008, when they had the wind at their backs. This time around, there are very few new targets of opportunity—and far more territory to defend. This gives the GOP a lot of room for growth. The Republicans’ candidates can also attack the Obama agenda, and blame him for the nation’s ills, without having to sell a platform of their own.
The Base Is Motivated
• The Daily Beast's Guide to the Year's 6 Most Crucial Races• The Daily Beast’s John Batchelor: The Last Days of the GOP• The Daily Beast’s Peter Beinart: Why the Democrats Should LoseThe polling for Tuesday’s gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey so far show conservatives significantly more energized. Democratic complacency after dominating two election cycles could also suppress turnout further while Obama's relative unpopularity among elderly voters, who often vote in disproportionate numbers in midterm elections, could also help Republican candidates. Success in New Jersey and Virginia on Tuesday could also be a confidence-booster, with the party faithful eager for any positive signs.
“[The Republican Party] is still ideologically divided but they have energy and the Democratic side just doesn't,” the CEO of Public Policy Polling, Dean Debnam, told The Daily Beast.
This dynamic has implications beyond the 2009 off-year balloting. In a low-turnout midterm election next year, the more motivated side could overperform.
Purging Moderates Works… …At Least in the Short Run.
New York's 23rd Congressional District has become the defining symbol of the gulf between the Republicans' far-right base and its party-building establishmentarians who hope to expand the party's reach by attracting more moderate candidates. In a special election contest to replace Republican Rep. John McHugh (R-NY), influential Republicans including Sarah Palin and Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty backed a conservative third-party candidate, Doug Hoffman, over moderate Republican nominee Dede Scozzafava, who was supported by former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Hoffman quickly became a national cause célèbre for conservatives who consider the national party insufficiently right-wing and a line in the sand for party establishment figures like Gingrich, who believed that only by tolerating moderate candidates like Scozzafava in swing districts like New York's 23rd could the party expand its reach. Sinking in the polls, Scozzafava dropped out last week and endorsed the Democrat, Bill Owens, which confirmed both the suspicions of her conservative critics who considered her a “Republican in Name Only” and the fears of party moderates, who worry they are being pushed out of the GOP. But heading into the balloting Tuesday, the conservative Hoffman enjoyed a lead.
Looking ahead, the Scozzafava/Hoffman affair could prove a model for a number of Republican primary races, from Charlie Crist vs. Marco Rubio in Florida's Senate race to GOP Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison challenging incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Perry in Texas.
The upside of ideological purification of the party: It’s easier to keep the party united. And when they’re united, conservatives have had some of their greatest successes of recent years (witness the 1994 Contract for America, for example, which helped the GOP to wrest control of the House).
Purging Moderates Doesn’t Work… …in the Long Run.
Alienating moderates shrinks the tent, and can cause Republicans to lose seats. Remember Pennsylvania, where a looming primary threat from anti-tax conservative Pat Toomey drove incumbent GOP Sen. Arlen Specter to defect to the Democrats—and give the party their critical 60th vote in the Senate.
The GOP will need moderates and independents to regain the White House. That segment of the electorate, key to George W. Bush’s success, swung back into the Democratic column in 2008—siding with Obama 52-44 percent.
According to one recent survey from Public Policy Polling, 35 percent of GOP base voters think the party is too liberal even as 46 percent of independent voters label it too conservative. The findings were echoed in a recent focus group study by James Carville and Stan Greenberg that found major gulfs between Republican voters and conservative independents in their perception of President Obama, with the latter group especially turned off by the “socialist” accusations popular with the GOP base.
The Bush Taint
A major problem for the GOP continues to be the memory of President Bush, who one year after the 2008 election still casts a pall over the party. According to a recent Fox News poll, 58 percent of voters still blame Bush for the state of the economy today versus only 18 percent who blame Obama, meaning Republicans still suffer politically from economic troubles like rising unemployment even after the White House has changed parties.
Obama Is Still Obama
The president’s approval ratings may have fallen since earlier this year. But they’re still similar to his Election Day margins and the coalition that elected him has not only stuck by his side so far but represents growing demographic groups such as young and minority voters who could put the GOP in an even tougher spot if the party can't make inroads.
As Republican strategist and Daily Beast columnist Mark McKinnon puts it, the GOP is “off death row, but it's still in solitary confinement.”
Talk Radio Titans Don’t Win Elections
Early after the election, some prominent Republicans sought to court new voters by adopting more centrist positions: National leaders held up moderate freshman Rep. Joseph Cao (R-LA) as a model for future recruiting, Governor Charlie Crist sided with President Obama on the stimulus bill, and the Republican governor of Utah, Jon Huntsman Jr., was making waves with his technocratic approach. Now one year later, Cao is largely forgotten by the national party and faces a difficult reelection; Crist is tacking to the right to fend off a tough Senate primary challenger in conservative Marco Rubio, and Huntsman has left electoral politics to become ambassador to China. And far-right voices like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck have emerged as the party's “ center of gravity,” as Republican strategist Bill Kristol described them in a recent Washington Post column, complete with their own army of grassroots supporters.
“To the extent that radio and television talk-show hosts are leading a political party, that party is in deep trouble,” Sabato said. “You need political figures who can actually govern leading a party and it doesn't matter which party.”
It’s Hard to Love the Party of ‘No’
Opposition to Obama has been the glue that's held the party together over the last year, but that strategy is not without its own risks as the president remains generally popular and Democrats have hammered the GOP as the “party of no.” One recent poll by Public Policy Poling found that the president has won over twice as many people who voted against him as he has lost people who voted for him. Popular perception that Republicans are not making a good-faith effort at bipartisanship, especially after no House Republicans voted for the president's stimulus plan in February, could also get him off the hook for pushing through partisan legislation, as the health-care bill is expected to be in the end.
McKinnon cautioned that obstructionism could only win back so many seats for the opposition.
“It's not enough to just be the party out of power and get default support when the party in power doesn't deliver. In order to regain majority status, Republicans can't just be the party of 'no', but need to a party with plan and vision for the future.”
Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.