Tom Davis: GOP needs to be inclusive to win

Republicans in Congress will lose if they don't retool, says former head of GOP's congressional committee.

As Democrats focus on how to unify the Clinton and Obama factions of their party, Republicans are worrying about a rout in the 2008 Congressional elections.

Some of the toughest talk about problems the Republicans face comes from Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia. Davis served two terms as chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee and is a ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. He was the speaker at Wednesday's Monitor-sponsored breakfast for reporters.

Having decided not to run for reelection, "I feel a great freedom now" to speak out, Davis said. Last month, Davis fired off a much commented upon memo to his Republican congressional colleagues. Among its key conclusions: "Without some meaningful changes in direction, the GOP is heading for losses bordering on another twenty seats in the House and up to a half dozen Senate seats."

While noting that John McCain ran ahead of Congressional Republicans, the Davis memo predicted that "McCain's coattails will be short," and that "McCain may lose but he's not likely to collapse, especially in targeted districts."

At Wednesday's breakfast, Davis stood by those comments and explained more about the thinking behind them. "The most difficult factor for Republicans in general is fundraising at the congressional, Senate, and House level. It is not just Obama. It is everything else. [Democrats] have outraised us significantly," Davis said.

Davis said he thought Republican congressional leaders would make changes in campaign strategy and tactics as a result of his warning memo. "If it were to stay the way it was prememo, we weren't even looking at a fair fight. We would be sitting up there with our archers and our mounted cavalry ready to charge them and we would be seeing Sherman tanks coming over the horizon," Davis said. "You want to see a fair fight in this and we have some ways to do that."

The Republicans' weakened state "is the spillover of the fact we have not done any retooling since we got beat in '06," Davis said. He argued that the Republican Party brand suffers due to a war where "expectations weren't managed very well," along with the effects of sharply higher gas prices and a weaker economy.

One solution for his party's woes, Davis said, was for it to become more inclusive. "The Democrats have cracked the code, and we still have an admissions test to get into the party and be a candidate. And that is one of the difficulties at this point. Democrats are smart. They want to win. Our guys still want to be right."

If Democrats take control of the White House and keep control of Congress, one option for Republicans is to build a coalition of those who are disappointed with the way Democrats run the country. "You then have to open up your party to those people who are unhappy if you want to form a governing coalition," Davis said. "Right now, some of those people who would be unhappy would not be welcome in our party. But I think over time, if you are going to be a winning coalition, you have got to put together interest groups that may not fit in the same room under ordinary circumstances."

At the moment, Senator McCain appears to be in a stronger competitive position than many Republican congressional candidates. The Real Clear Politics website's average of national polls shows the senator as preferred by 45 percent of voters against 46.8 percent who prefer Senator Obama – a difference of less than 2 percentage points. The Real Clear Politics average of results for a generic congressional race shows 49.4 percent of voters favoring the Democratic candidate versus 37.4 favoring the Republican – a 12-point spread.

The best tactic for McCain in battling Obama, Davis said, will be to sharply highlight specific differences on policy issues. "If you are McCain, you have got to draw lines. You can't win this with slogans as a Republican. You have got to get a little more specific," Davis said. He argued that nothing in Obama's record "puts him outside the liberal box" and that is "not a philosophy voters have embraced on a national scale."

That liberal stance on social issues is one reason Davis downplayed Obama's chances of winning in Virginia and the rest of the South. "It is still a steep road for him at this point to carry Virginia or probably any Southern state, given the fact that he tends to be a more cultural than economic oriented candidate," Davis said.

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