Can survivors lead GOP out of the wilderness?

Image: Roger Wicker, Gayle Wicker
A survivor: Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., thanks his supporters while his wife, Gayle, listens in Jackson, Miss., on Tuesday night. Wicker defeated Democrat Ronnie Musgrove.Rogelio V. Solis / AP
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The Republicans who survived Tuesday night’s Democratic electoral onslaught might bravely insist that “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

But there's no denying the reality of these results — the GOP will be a shrunken and even more beleaguered minority in the House and the Senate come January.

The surviving Republicans will have few effective ways to resist the Democratic-dominated Congress as it considers President-elect Barack Obama’s legislative agenda.

In the Senate, the GOP will have a limited number of options for stopping Obama from populating the federal bench with judges who reflect his views.

Yet despite the strong performance by Obama at the top of the ticket, Republicans did manage to score some significant victories in several House and Senate races.

To cite two in Minnesota, a state which Obama won handily, Republican Erik Paulsen held on to a GOP House seat that was being vacated by retiring Rep. Jim Ramstad.

This was exactly the kind of suburban district that Obama and the House Democrats were winning in other parts of the country.

And just north of the Twin Cities, in another suburban battleground area, the won a second term.

Bachmann won notoriety for saying on MSNBC's "Hardball" three weeks ago that, “The people Barack Obama has been associating with are anti-American, by and large.”

Why Bachmann survived
Is this a study in Darwinian evolution, with only the toughest Republicans surviving?

In Bachmann’s case, that’s probably true. She was simply a much tougher candidate than her Democratic challenger, El Tinklenberg. She had armed herself well, raising $2.4 million for her campaign — more than twice as much money as Tinklenberg raised.

Until her Hardball comments, few observers expected her to lose.

The question as she returns for her second term is: Can she play a creative role in legislating and in leading her party? Or will House Democrats’ resentment of her statements make her an especially disdained member of a marginalized minority?

Last spring, veteran Congress watcher and political scientist Jack Pitney observed that for House Republicans, “The key number to watch is 192."

"From the late 1950s to 1994, the GOP could never win more than 192 seats in the House,” he said. “This ‘glass ceiling’ led to the perception that the House GOP was a permanent minority.”

Pitney said that if Republicans came out of the 2008 election with more than 192 seats, “they will have an outside chance of regaining the majority in 2008. But if they fall below this level, they will be in danger. They might not be a permanent minority but majority status will be a distant prospect.”

As of Wednesday afternoon with a few races still too close to call, it appears the Republicans will have only 177 seats when the new House meets in January, the fewest they have had since 1993.

As for that majority status? It is hard to see, even looking far into future.

The victory of one Senate Republican, who did survive, Roger Wicker, offers a lesson in the dynamics of voter turnout.

Mississippi Democrats had hoped that Obama would inspire a huge African-American turnout,  helping to pull Senate candidate Ronnie Musgrove to victory. If Obama won 45 percent of the state vote, Musgrove would likely win, said Democrat Ronnie Shows, the former congressman who represented southern and central Mississippi before the 2000 redistricting.

But black voters made up 33 percent of the Mississippi electorate on Tuesday — almost exactly the same percentage they did four years ago and perhaps even a bit less.

Black turnout increased — but so did white turnout, especially in places such as fast-growing DeSoto County in the Mississippi suburbs of Memphis.

Supreme survivors
Apart from the Republicans who held on the win in House and Senate races, there are other survivors in Washington.

Four appointees of Republican presidents are conservatives: Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito. Another GOP appointee, Justice Anthony Kennedy, sometimes joins the liberal wing of the court.

These five Republican appointees will help determine the fate of Obama’s policies. Suddenly, the longevity of Scalia, at age 72 and the oldest of the conservatives on the high court, looms large.

Obama's kind of judges
Obama has promised to appoint judges who will do more than simply adhere to the text and historical meaning of the Constitution.

He has said he wants judges to “protect people who may be vulnerable in the political process: the outsider, the minority, those who are vulnerable …”

In what was mostly an overlooked story on election night, there were clear signs of an increasing North v. South regional polarization between the two parties. America is not becoming “one nation,” at least if one considers Tuesday’s outcome.

Northeastern Republicans are now a nearly extinct species with the defeat of Rep. Chris Shays, the Republican who represented the Connecticut suburbs of New York City.

Meanwhile, Obama did not win any of the Appalachian or Ozark states, such as West Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky, which Bill Clinton carried in 1996. Obama became the first Democratic candidate ever to win the presidency without carrying Arkansas.

In the all-important battle to control state legislatures and thus control the re-mapping of congressional districts after the 2010 Census, there were more signs of a regional divide.

State lawmakers and governors are the ones who decide what the new congressional districts will look like.

Who will re-draw the maps?
Democratic state lawmakers made big gains in New York, Ohio and Wisconsin and will control the re-mapping there.

But Republican state legislators made gains in Tennessee and Oklahoma, for the first time controlling both houses of the legislature in both states.

Finally, the surviving Republicans in Congress and the ambitious GOP politicians out there who might be contemplating a presidential bid in 2012 must ponder the evidence that social conservatism has not become extinct — it has simply escaped the notice of Washington and New York pundits.

Cases in point:

  • In Florida, Arizona and California, constitutional amendments that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman won approval of the state’s voters.
  • In California, the support for banning same-sex marriages, at 52 percent, was far stronger than the support for Republican presidential candidate John McCain, at 37 percent.
  • In Nebraska a constitutional amendment to prohibit the state from discriminating against, or granting preferential treatment to, individuals or groups based upon race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin was approved with nearly 60 percent of the vote.

One question for the GOP survivors in Congress: Do they want to pick up the social conservative banner? What are the risks and benefits of doing so?