Video: GOP, no ideas, no identity

By Deputy political director
NBC News
updated 3/3/2009 1:46:35 PM ET 2009-03-03T18:46:35

It has been just six weeks since their party lost control of the White House, but plenty of Republicans are already talking about a political comeback.

After every House Republican voted against President Barack Obama’s stimulus plan —demonstrating party unity and a commitment to lower spending that didn’t always exist when the GOP was in power — Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told The Washington Post: “We’re so far ahead of where we thought we’d be at this time.”

“It’s not a sign that we’re back to where we need to be,” he added, “but it’s a sign that we’re beginning to find our voice.”

Republicans also touted they were on the road to recovery after winning three races after Nov. 4 — a Senate run-off in Georgia and two congressional contests in Louisiana.

In one of those Louisiana victories, little-known Anh “Joseph” Cao defeated Democratic incumbent Rep. William Jefferson, who had been indicted on corruption charges. The win prompted House GOP Leader John Boehner to fire off a memo declaring, "The Future is Cao."

And at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, former (and possibly future) Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney asked audience members not to dwell on the battles they’ve lost. “We are here to get ready for the battles we’re going to win,” he said.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who also spoke at the conference, added, "The reports of the demise of the conservative movement are greatly exaggerated."

Real progress?
Yet opposing one piece of legislation, winning three post-election races in the GOP-friendly South or holding a conservative pep rally in D.C. doesn’t really signal a political comeback.

But what could, analysts say, are Republican victories in three upcoming races this year — a congressional special election in New York, and gubernatorial contests in New Jersey and Virginia.

Those wins would demonstrate that the GOP can win outside of the South (New York and New Jersey), and in a state that the party must carry in future presidential contests (Virginia).

“Victories here would send an important message reminding people that the party is not…in as bad of shape as people have presumed,” said Stu Rothenberg of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.

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The first test: New York
The first test comes on March 31, when Republican Jim Tedisco faces off against Democrat Scott Murphy in a special New York congressional election to replace Kirsten Gillibrand, who was recently appointed to fill Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s vacated Senate seat.

Even though Obama received 51 percent of the vote in this Albany-area district, it definitely tilts Republican. George W. Bush won the district by eight points in 2004 and by seven points in 2000. Republicans, in fact, had controlled this seat for 28 years before Gillibrand won it back in 2006.

What’s more, Tedisco, the minority leader in New York’s State Assembly, is a better-known candidate than Murphy, a relative political newcomer.

“I’d rather be the Republican than the Democrat,” said David Wasserman, who monitors House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “This could be a very challenging race for Democrats.”

Indeed, a recent Siena Research Institute poll showed Tedisco leading Murphy by 12 points, 46 percent to 34 percent.

But with Tedisco considered the leading candidate, this contest, in a way, has turned into a must-win for Republicans. “This is one they have to win,” said Rothenberg.

History vs. recent trends
A more difficult, but still winnable, contest for the GOP is this year’s gubernatorial race in Virginia.

For one thing, history seems to be on the Republicans’ side. Since 1977, the political party that controls the White House always loses this Virginia race, which comes a year after the presidential election.

In addition, three Democrats — former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, state Sen. Creigh Deeds, and former Virginia House of Delegates member Brian Moran — are battling each other in the Democratic primary, which will take place in June.

On the other hand, the Republican candidate, former state Attorney General Bob McDonnell, has the GOP field all to himself.

“My sense is that McDonnell is in about as good of shape that a Republican has been in in the last 12 years,” said Bob Holsworth, former professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, and current president of VirginiaTomorrow.com.

Video: Romney wins straw poll again But Virginia is a state that's been trending Democratic over the past several years.

Not only did Obama win the state by seven points in November (matching his overall popular vote performance), but Democrats have won the past two gubernatorial contests (2001 and 2005), as well as the past two Senate races (2006 and 2008).

Now McDonnell has the opportunity to reverse this trend. A win here would be an impressive victory for the GOP and could serve to further energize the party.

“Can McDonnell be this kind of catalyst for the Republican Party as it tries to revitalize itself?” Holsworth asked. “Can he develop a pragmatic conservative message?”

The toughest challenge of them all
Without question, the toughest of the three races is the gubernatorial contest in New Jersey. That race will likely pit incumbent Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine against former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie — who first has to win what looks to be a crowded GOP primary.

The good news for Republicans is that Corzine appears to be vulnerable. A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed Christie leading Corzine by six points, 44 percent to 38 percent, in a hypothetical race.

The bad news for the GOP is that a Republican hasn’t won a statewide contest in New Jersey since 1997. Indeed, there have been recent examples — the governor’s race in 2005 and the Senate race in 2006 — when Republicans thought they had a chance to win in New Jersey, but in each contest, they weren’t able to muster more than 44 percent of the vote.

“Incumbents always look weak in that state,” Rothenberg explained. “And most of the time, they end up winning.”

But if Republicans are able to capture this contest — and the ones in New York and Virginia — they just might have something to crow about heading into the 2010 midterm elections.

Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News. NBC’s Abby Livingston contributed to this article.

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