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

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.

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.

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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.

The irony is that the leaders who did appear all subscribe to the conservative social agenda, but are not seen as being “of” that movement – and thus have the potential to attract a larger constituency. Still, alienating social conservatives, like 2008 candidate Mike Huckabee, who criticized the “listening tour” idea, is risky business for the GOP.

The challenge at the heart of the party’s rebuilding effort is to preserve its existing coalition – economic and social conservatives – while convincing ordinary Americans in the middle that the party is addressing their concerns, not captured by rigid ideology. The loud voices on conservative cable TV and radio have made that challenge all the more difficult.

It all goes back to the big tent. And Reagan’s model still applies, says Princeton political historian Julian Zelizer. “Reagan certainly did a lot of things social conservatives did not like,” says Mr. Zelizer. “Abortion was not the centerpiece of his administration.”

Ted Cruz, a candidate for attorney general of Texas who has captured national GOP attention, says that in recent years, the party has had the worst of two worlds: “They have gotten away from core conservative principles of limited government and individual opportunity and responsibility, but at the same time, have employed rhetoric and framed the argument in a way that has driven people away.”

Reagan didn’t boast about how conservative he was. “What he said was, ‘Look, I’m standing up for common-sense values that every small town in America and every small business and family has understood for centuries. This is who we are,” says Mr. Cruz.

Still, the GOP faces a tall task in reengaging large swaths of the population it has alienated – moderates, moderate women in particular, minorities, gays. Judy Singleton, cofounder of an Indiana program that trains Republican women for political leadership, wishes the party would go back to its traditional focus on national security and fiscal conservatism and stay silent on social issues. “Some of these people act like abortion and [opposition to] gay marriage are what define you as a Republican, and women are saying no,” Ms. Singleton says.

If the view from Washington has looked bleak for Republicans until recently, outside the Beltway the party has some reasons for cheer. A new generation of young Republicans is aiming high in politics. In St. Petersburg, Fla., two-term mayor Rick Baker shows that a Republican can govern successfully in a Democratic city. Meet, too, Colorado’s Josh Penry, former Attorney General Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, and Ted Cruz of Texas, aspiring state attorney general and son of a Cuban immigrant.

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