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The Bush GOP's fatal contraction

President George W. Bush walks with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley as they leave the White House on Friday for a trip to Lima, Peru to attend the APEC Summit. Ron Edmonds / AP
/ Source: National Journal

As George W. Bush's presidency winds down, the Republican Party's greatest problem is that it doesn't appear to be reaching much of anybody who isn't already watching Fox News. Bush leaves behind a party that looks less like a coalition than a clubhouse.

The consistent thread linking the 2006 and 2008 elections was the narrowing of the playing field for Republicans even as Democrats extended their reach into places once considered reliably "red." Consider the Electoral College maps available to John McCain and Barack Obama. By the presidential campaign's final days, McCain was seriously competing in only two states that went for John Kerry in 2004: Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. McCain ultimately was routed in both; indeed, Obama not only defended all 19 states (plus the District of Columbia) that Kerry won but held McCain to 42 percent or less in all but three of them.

By contrast, Obama through Election Day seriously contested 10 states that voted for Bush in 2004 -- among them eight that twice went for Bush and four (Colorado, Indiana, North Carolina, and Virginia) that had voted Democratic for president no more than once since 1964. Obama ultimately won nine of those 10 previously red states (with McCain holding Missouri after an extended recount).

In Congress, Republicans are also suffering through what amounts to a fatal contraction. Eighteen states might be considered the "true blue" states. These 18 (all of the Kerry 2004 states, except New Hampshire) have voted Democratic in each of the past five presidential elections. With this month's defeat of Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., Republicans now hold only four of those 18 states' 36 Senate seats. The number will shrink to three if Sen. Norm Coleman loses a recount to Democrat Al Franken in Minnesota.

Democrats, again, are moving in the opposite direction. Twenty-nine states voted for Bush both times. After 2004, Democrats held just 14 of the 58 Senate seats from those 29 states -- a testament to Bush's first-term success at energizing the conservative base. But with this week's Alaska victory, Democrats since 2004 have captured eight more red-state Senate seats, giving them at least 22 overall (with another pickup possible in the Georgia runoff). Democrats now hold at least 38 percent of the Senate seats in the past decade's red states, while Republicans hold just 11 percent of blue-state seats.

Republicans likewise end the Bush years retreating in blue congressional districts. In 2004, Kerry outpolled Bush in 180 districts. After the 2004 election, Republicans held 18 of those 180 Democratic-leaning seats. But after back-to-back losses, Republicans now hold just five.

Once again, Democrats are displaying much wider reach. In 2004, Bush outpolled Kerry in 255 congressional districts. After the 2004 election, Republicans controlled a commanding 213 of those 255 seats, leaving Democrats just 42. But after gains in 2006 and 2008, the Democratic total in those red districts has almost doubled -- to 83. That means while Republicans control less than 3 percent of the congressional districts that voted for Kerry last time, Democrats hold nearly one-third of the districts that backed Bush.

All of these trends expose the same dynamic: Democrats are effectively courting voters with diverse views, but the Republican capacity to appeal to voters beyond their party's core coalition has collapsed.

Bush targeted most of his priorities toward the GOP base. And since 2005, he has faced overwhelming disapproval among independent voters and near-unanimous rejection from Democrats.

McCain, with his reputation for independence, was supposed to restore the GOP's competitiveness among swing voters. But to win the GOP nomination, McCain embraced Bush's core economic and foreign policies and then selected, in Sarah Palin, a running mate who waged the culture war with a zeal that made Bush and Karl Rove look squeamish.

Both decisions weakened McCain's position with centrist voters; then the financial collapse deepened the hole. The result was that McCain cratered in such places as Philadelphia's upscale, socially moderate suburbs, which he lost by almost 200,000 votes, double Bush's already daunting deficit last time. Until Republicans restore their ability to speak to voters in the Philadelphia suburbs and to their counterparts outside Detroit and Denver or Columbus and Orlando, rousing the faithful on Fox isn't likely to halt the Democratic advance.