A fundamental debate broke out among Republicans on Wednesday over how to rebuild the party in the wake of Senator Arlen Specter’s departure: Should it purge moderate voices like Mr. Specter and embrace its conservative roots or seek to broaden its appeal to regain a competitive position against Democrats?
With consensus growing among Republicans that the party is in its worst political position in recent memory, some conservatives applauded Mr. Specter’s departure. They said it cleared the way for the party to distance itself from its record of expanding government during the Bush years and to re-emphasize the calls for tax cuts and reduced federal spending that have dominated Republican thought for more than 30 years.
“We strayed from our principles of limited government, individual responsibility and economic freedom,” said Chris Chocola, a former Indiana congressman who is head of Club for Growth, a group that has financed primary challenges against Republicans it considers insufficiently conservative. “We have to adhere to those principles to rebuild the party. Those are the brand of the Republican Party, and people feel that we betrayed the brand.”
But Republican leaders in Washington argued that Republicans would be permanently marginalized unless they showed flexibility on social issues as well as economic ones.
Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said he would seek to recruit candidates who he thought could win in Democratic or swing states, even if it meant supporting candidates who might disagree with his own conservative views.
Mr. Cornyn said he was taking a page from Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, the last head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, who led his party to big gains by embracing candidates who, for example, opposed abortion rights or gun control.
“If you think about it, Schumer has been very good at this; I complimented him this morning in the gym,” Mr. Cornyn said, adding, “Some conservatives would rather lose than be seen as compromising on what they regard as inviolable principles.”
Senator Lindsay Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said: “We are not losing blue states and shrinking as a party because we are not conservative enough. If we pursue a party that has no place for someone who agrees with me 70 percent of the time, that is based on an ideological purity test rather than a coalition test, then we are going to keep losing.”
The debate broke out as the party found itself in a particularly dire state. Mr. Specter’s departure came a week after Republicans lost a special Congressional election in an upstate New York district with a significant Republican voter edge; as such, it underlined the extent the party was contracting, not only ideologically but also geographically.
In 2006, there were 55 Republicans in the Senate, compared with 45 Democrats. With Mr. Specter’s departure, there will be 40 Republicans. Depending on the outcome of the election between Norm Coleman and Al Franken in Minnesota, Democrats could end up with 60 votes, enough, assuming they hold the party together, to take away the minority party’s most powerful weapon, the filibuster.
The wide margin puts Democrats in a strong position as they prepare to deal with President Obama’s agenda on issues like health care and global warming.
Politics are cyclical; not long ago Karl Rove, at the time the chief political adviser to President George W. Bush, was boasting about the Republican Party enjoying a permanent majority.
The dominance now enjoyed by Democrats could prove equally transitory. Several Republicans said Democrats could suffer a backlash if economic policies pushed by Mr. Obama failed to lift the country out of a recession.
“These policies that he is pursuing expanding the size of the government are going to be policies which the country will find hard to accept when they look at the levels of debt and the levels of spending that they require,” said Senator Judd Gregg, Republican of New Hampshire.
Saying that their party should do more to draw economic contrasts with the Democrats, several Republicans said Mr. Specter’s departure was in effect a purification rite for the party that would make it better able to make its case to the public.
“I’m not hurt by Arlen Specter walking away,” said Michael Reagan, the son of former President Ronald Reagan and a conservative talk show host. “At least now the party doesn’t waste money supporting someone who does not support the party.”
“It’s interesting that people say the right has taken over the Republican Party — but no one can say what we’ve done,” Mr. Reagan said. “We’ve been closeted for the last eight years; it’s time for the right to come out of the closet.”
Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina said ideological purity was the road to success. “The best way to get to 60 is to have a core group of Republicans who really do what they say and stand for their principles,” Mr. DeMint said.
Patrick J. Toomey, a former head of the Club for Growth whose primary challenge to Mr. Specter led the senator to bow out in the face of what he thought was a probable defeat, said Republicans should be open to a “wide range of opinions on a wide range of issues.”
“But I think fundamental common ground that the vast majority of Republicans share is the belief in limited government, freedom and personal responsibility,” Mr. Toomey said.
The question of how the party should respond to Mr. Specter’s departure was the main subject of a Senate Republican lunch on Wednesday. The party can be a “big tent,” said Senator John Ensign of Nevada, “but here are some core principles: fiscal responsibility, more personal responsibility, looking for a smaller, more effective government.”
Mr. Graham scoffed at the notion that the party was suffering because it was not conservative enough.
“Do you really believe that we lost 18-to-34-year-olds by 19 percent, or we lost Hispanic voters, because we are not conservative enough?” he said. “No. This is a ridiculous line of thought. The truth is we lost young people because our Republican brand is tainted.”
This article, "G.O.P. Debate: A Broader Party or a Purer One?", originally appeared in The New York Times.