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The reshaping of the GOP

The most fertile ground for Republicans is the growing ranks of independents. And efforts to rebrand the party from the inside are prompting a stir within a new generation of young politicians.

By Staff writer / August 18, 2009

Steve Brodner



There’s a slight spring in the step of Republicans these days. President Obama is stumbling on health reform and his job approval rating is sinking. Suddenly, life in the wilderness doesn’t look so bleak to a GOP that got trounced in the last two elections and was, to some, staring possible extinction in the face.

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The party could well take two key governorships – New Jersey and Virginia – away from the Democrats in November.

Recruiting for next year’s House, Senate, and gubernatorial races has gotten easier, in anticipation of midterm elections that historically favor the out-of-power party.

Already, top Republicans are cautioning against overconfidence.

“We are doing better,” says House minority leader John Boehner. “But let’s be honest, we’ve got a long way to go.”

Mr. Boehner wants Americans to judge politicians on what they do, not what they say. But these days, words are just about all Republicans in Washington have. With the Democrats running the show, it’s hard to get anyone to pay attention to GOP policy ideas. And it’s not as if they’re coming out with anything markedly different from before: The latest House GOP proposal for health reform centers on the use of tax credits to help modest-income Americans buy insurance.

But a Big Idea doesn’t have to precede a political comeback. Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America, the 10-point policy agenda released before the historic GOP takeover of Congress in 1994, was not widely known among the public. It was the congressional Democrats’ deep unpopularity, topped off by President Clinton’s mistakes, that swept the Republicans into power on Capitol Hill for the first time in 40 years.

Today, Democrats have a lot of goodwill to burn before they see the lows that the GOP has faced of late. And even if Republicans pick up seats in Congress next year, the chances of retaking either house are virtually nil. In fact, analysts say, the danger is that the Republicans pick up seats in 2010, feel better, and decide that they don’t need to change after all.

Searching for the next Ronald Reagan or a Republican Obama is also not the answer.

“Parties go for decades without Obamas and Reagans,” says Dan Schnur, a former Republican strategist in California.

The most fertile terrain for Republicans is the burgeoning ranks of independents – politically unaligned voters who are, essentially, up for grabs. GOP efforts to “rebrand” the party have started fitfully. One initiative, launched by House Republican whip Eric Cantor, often touted as one of the party’s rising stars, is on hold. On May 2, his National Council for a New America held its first – and so far only – stop on a “listening tour” at a pizza parlor in northern Virginia, aimed at hearing voters’ concerns and talking solutions. The session, joined by 2008 presidential candidate Mitt Romney and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, was panned by social conservatives, who complained that no leaders of the “values wing” of the party were included.