Opinion

Beyond Specter, Republicans have a steep hill to climb

To overcome scary electoral math, the GOP must recast its principles.

By

Arlen Specter is out of the GOP, Democrats are up on Capitol Hill, and Republicans are down in the dumps. What happened, and what can the GOP do about it?

The problem is not that Senate Republicans mistreated him – far from it.

In 2004, the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to help him beat a conservative primary challenger. Then his colleagues gave him the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee despite his liberal views on abortion and other issues in the committee's jurisdiction. And in recent weeks, he got the NRSC chairman's endorsement and $10,000 from Republican Leader Mitch McConnell's political committee.

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But Senator Specter made a calculation. Next year's GOP primary and general election looked very difficult for him. And even if he cleared both hurdles, he would still be in the minority party. As a Democrat, he would have a better chance of retaining his seat and regaining some power. He chose self-interest over gratitude, earning a chapter in "Profiles in Something Less Than Courage."

Most Republicans feel a sense of betrayal, which is understandable. But some feel a sense of joy, which is unwise.

"This is ultimately good," said Rush Limbaugh. "I mean this is winnowing out the people that end up misdefining or preventing the party from having a singular identity."

Such comments recall a line from the 1939 comedy Ninotchka: "The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians." Although having fewer but better Republicans may make El Rushbo feel good, it's a very strange way to win majorities.

Specter's switch highlights a huge problem for the GOP: large swatches of the country are becoming "off limits." There are 12 Eastern states north of Virginia, and five more states bordering the Pacific. Of the 34 senators from these regions, only 4 are Republicans.

The picture in the House is just as grim. Many years ago, Republicans had a stronghold in New England, and they still had a toehold as late as the 1990s. But in 2008, they lost their last seat in the region: The score is now 22-0. Next door, New York State once had a thriving GOP that could win at every level. Those days are gone: Republicans hold no statewide offices, and only three of the state's 29 House districts. In a recent special election, they failed to recapture an upstate seat they had held for decades before 2006.

Republicans have just one of the 31 districts that are at least 40 percent African American and only seven of the 42 districts that are at least 40 percent Hispanic. More than 100 Democratic districts fall into one or more of the following categories: black, Hispanic, New England, New York. Without these seats, the GOP has to take about two-thirds of the rest in order to regain a majority. In the Senate, likewise, writing off the Democratic seats of the East and Pacific West means that they must win 71 percent of the remainder.

It is hard to see how Republicans could pull off that feat, especially since Democrats have become skillful in invading GOP territory. In the South and Mountain West, Democrats have won key Senate elections and picked up some very Republican House seats. Last year, they mounted stiff challenges to Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, as well as other red-state Republican lawmakers who had previously counted on easy reelection.

In much of the country, grassroots GOP organizations have withered. Facing a similar situation a few years ago, Democratic national chairman Howard Dean crafted a "50-state strategy" to rebuild his party's structure. Though his approach caused shouting matches within the party leadership, it contributed a great deal to the Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008. Something like a 50-state strategy is essential to Republican survival.

To compete in Democratic areas, Republicans must obviously reach beyond their base.

Such an approach does not mean that all Republicans must renounce their positions on social issues. Indeed, it would make no sense to ditch religious conservatives and gun owners, who make up much of the party's dwindling corps of volunteers. But Republicans do have to cast their principles in language with broader appeal, and show how their policies can solve the problems that concern voters.

Notwithstanding his poorly-received response to the president's address to Congress, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal provides an example of effective conservative governance. He has championed ethics reform and stood up to special interests. (Among other things, he signed legislation requiring insurance companies to cover autism.)

A resurgent GOP will remain conservative – but it cannot be monolithic. Some of their candidates and new supporters will take different positions on certain issues. In 1990, before he became Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich put it well:

"We have to recognize that we have to get used to fighting ourselves at times and we have to recognize that we are in the business of conflict management. We are not in the business of conflict resolution. You only resolve conflicts by kicking people out and that means you become a minority. So, if you intend to be a majority, you have to be willing to live with a lot of conflict because that is the nature of a majority."

John J. Pitney, Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College. With James W. Ceaser and Andrew E. Busch, he is coauthor of "Epic Journey: The 2008 Elections and American Politics."

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