When Washington state voters opened their mail-in ballots and stepped into voting booths, they had this choice for governor:
• Christine Gregoire
(Prefers Democratic Party)
• Dino Rossi
(Prefers G.O.P. Party)
Rossi was taking as few chances as he could. After a survey suggested that as many as 12 percent of the state’s registered voters didn’t know that the “G.O.P. Party” and the Republican Party were the same thing, there was no way the Republican was going to call himself a Republican.
Political analysts said Rossi’s decision was a smart one in a historically Democratic state where President Bush is highly unpopular and where the Republicans’ nominee to succeed Bush, John McCain, ran 15 to 20 percentage points behind in pre-election polling. Rossi ended up losing, but, as he boasted in his concession speech, he ran well ahead of McCain.
The Washington race exemplified what was true in many areas of the country on Tuesday: The national ticket of McCain and Sarah Palin may be getting most of the blame for Republicans’ losses, but at the local and state levels, Republicans say their problems run deeper.
Top Republicans echoed the assessment of the National Review, a leading organ of conservative Republicanism, which thundered in a post-election editorial that “the public has ... clearly rejected the Republican Party in its present configuration.”
“Sometimes, I think we’ve forgotten what we stand for,” said Stewart Iverson, who resigned Thursday as chairman of the Republican Party in Iowa, where Barack Obama easily won the presidential vote, Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin was re-elected by an even bigger margin and Democrats consolidated control of the Legislature.
“We’re going to have to look at rebuilding the Republican Party,” Iverson said.
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., likewise called for his party to “embrace a bold new direction.”
“We have got to clean up, reform and rebuild the Republican Party before we can ask Americans to trust us again,” he said.
‘An impeachment of Republicans’
Exactly how to rebuild is the issue. Party activists were divided into two camps: those who said Republicans should restore their identity by embracing core conservative values and those who said Republicans had lost touch with the voters by embracing core conservative values.
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South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, a Republican hailed by the American Conservative Union as the most conservative governor in America, argued that the party had lost its way by abandoning fiscal restraint. Sanford opposed Bush’s bailout of Wall Street and even traveled to Washington a week before the election to testify before Congress in opposition to a proposal for a second bailout.
Republican weakness, he said, “really is an impeachment of Republicans not walking their own walk.”
Ted Sporer, chairman of the Republican Party in Polk County, Iowa, said Republicans had “bottomed out.” He called on the party to return to its limited-government roots and “the concept of morality.”
"You know, doing the same thing with the same people and expecting different results — what do you think is going to happen?” Sporer asked. “Operational insanity.”
Chris Riley, chairman of the Republican Party in St. Joseph County, Ind., said moderates and independents — who exit polls show voted strongly for Obama — would not be turned off by a Republican swing back to the right. In fact, he said, moderate and center-right voters would respect the party only if it keeps “fighting as the Republican Party.”
“What we really need is sound economic policy — de-emphasize taxes,” Riley said. “And when we do that, people are going to come back, and they’re going to see that the Republican Party is the answer.”
Difficult days ahead for GOP
Other Republicans sharply disagreed.
Lincoln Chafee, a former Republican senator from Rhode Island who endorsed Obama, predicted a bloody struggle for the soul of the party.
The election results demonstrated that the party had hit rock bottom, Chafee said, but he feared that socially conservative party activists — “the Rush Limbaughs, the Bill O’Reillys, the Sean Hannitys” — were incapable of changing course.
Chafee said adherents of “the Karl Rove strategy, if you will,” had been “great at winning elections by dividing the country and energizing the base, but then they have been an utter failure at governing, because once you divide the country, it’s so difficult to govern.”
“Now they can’t even win elections,” he said. “So they are bankrupt on both cases.”
Rep. Mary Bono Mack, R-Calif., who comfortably won re-election Tuesday, said Republicans should accept that “the American people have given [Obama] a huge victory.”
Mack, who described herself as a moderate Republican, said she felt a responsibility to “support and work with Barack Obama when he becomes president in January.”
Young, minority voters to be a priority
Republicans of all stripes said their biggest challenge was the party’s perceived identification as predominantly catering to the white middle class.
Alex Triantifilou, chairman of the Republican Party in Hamilton County, Ohio, said his party was at a turning point after Democrats won a majority on the county commission Tuesday.
“We need to take a deep breath and look to the future,” said Triantifilou. There was “just no question” that Obama was succeeding at luring new, young and previously disaffected voters to the Democratic side with a message of optimism and change, he said.
After reliably Republican Houston and surrounding Harris County elected a Democratic sheriff and turned out 23 Republican judges, Texas state Sen. Dan Patrick agreed that Republicans urgently needed to expand their base.
“Our party cannot continue to be a party that only attracts white voters over the age of 30,” he said.
Sherry Barnes, party chairwoman in Richmond County, Ga., said she was “very excited” that so many young voters turned out, but she expressed dismay that they favored Obama in such strong numbers.
Conservative Republicanism should appeal to young Americans, especially those with families, Barnes said, but the party’s lack of focus made it hard to get the message across.
“We need to educate our young people not only about the rights of this country but also the responsibility they hold for this country,” she said.
Bush ready to weigh in
However the struggle plays out, Bush will play a role, White House press secretary Dana Perino said Thursday.
“For the past two years, we studiously followed the president’s direction, which was to not insert ourselves in the campaign, not to rise to the debate,” Perino said.
But with the election over, “now we’ll have a chance to talk more. ... I think you'll start seeing that sometime in December,” she said.
Perino predicted that Republicans would come out of the debate ready for battle.
“The political party will have a chance to regroup and decide where they go from here. And that will be a good, healthy process to go through,” she said.
“We went through it in 1992, as well, and we were much better and stronger for it. And I think that can happen again.”
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