House Republicans Hurting in Wake of Election Defeats
Can the GOP Recover its Political Competitiveness in 2008?
It’s hard to find just the right adjective to describe how bad 2008 has been to the Republicans. “Catastrophic” comes to mind, but that may be ever so slightly overstated, so let’s just put it this way: it probably couldn’t have been much worse.
The first special election defeat came as a shock. U.S. Rep. J. Dennis Hastert (R-IL-14), an 11-term Member of Congress who served as Speaker of the House for eight years and was the longest-serving Republican Speaker in history, resigned his seat in November 2007. Republicans were confident: the district had been represented by a Republican for 35 years and George W. Bush had carried the district comfortably in the Presidential elections of 2000 (55%) and 2004 (54%). In the 2004 and 2006 Congressional elections, Mr. Hastert had won 69% and 60% respectively. But on March 8, 2008, Democrat Bill Foster prevailed by a comfortable 52% to 47% margin.
The second special election defeat didn’t go down any better. On February 2, 2008 U.S. Rep. Richard Baker (R-LA-6), a 21-year veteran of the House who was re-elected to his 11th term in 2006 with 83% of the vote, resigned his Congressional seat to take a job in the private sector. The seat was occupied by a Republican for 33 years and easily won by the Bush-Cheney ticket in the 2000 and 2004 Presidential contests; the GOP had every reason to be upbeat about its candidate’s prospects to retain the seat. But it wasn’t to be: on May 3, the voters elected Democrat Dan Cazeyoux by a 49% to 44% margin.
The frosting on the cake came in a special election for Mississippi’s First Congressional District seat occupied for the previous 13 years by newly-appointed U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker (R). Although by every measure Mississippi-1 is also a “ruby red” district, Republicans lost the voters’ confidence and, on May 13, they elected Democrat Travis Childers.
As a result, the Republican Conference in the House of Representatives dips below 200 seats (they’re at 199), and Republicans find themselves on a losing streak in “their own” territory with under six months to go before the November election. All of this heightens Republican anxiety already fueled by 26 “open” GOP-held seats (i.e., seats of Republican incumbents not running for re-election), generic ballot tests that strongly favor the Democrats, dismal presidential approval ratings, and “right track/wrong track” polling data that … no surprise here … shows wide and deep discontent with the status quo.
The bad news for Republicans … as if more was needed! … is that there are members of the national Republican hierarchy who blame the special House election defeats on bad candidates (all three of whom remain on the November ballot in their districts), and there may be something to that. But that’s clearly not the whole story … “ruby red” districts elect Republicans … unless … they’re not quite so “red” anymore which, ironically, takes us to the good news: increasingly Republican leaders are “getting the joke” and recognizing that the GOP “brand,” packaging and content, needs to be quickly overhauled in a way that clearly distinguishes what they will do from the Democrats’ policy prescriptions. Otherwise, as the three special House elections make crystal clear, there is no longer any such thing as “ruby red” or “safe” Republican territory.
Re-branding at this point in the election cycle is a difficult but achievable task. It’s difficult, first, because the incumbent President’s political party normally takes the heat for what troubles voters, and what troubles voters these days – Iraq, economic uncertainty, high and rapidly rising gasoline prices, the housing crisis and health care – is not likely to respond to quick fixes or diminish any time soon. Beyond that, it certainly doesn’t help that President Bush is personally politically unpopular and likely to remain so for the duration of this election cycle and beyond.
However, this task becomes “do-able” because it’s the GOP’s presumptive Presidential nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain and not George W. Bush, who will set the tone for the Republican Party and its candidates for national office as this general election cycle unfolds. McCain differs with the Bush Administration on a wide range of issues: the prosecution of the Iraq War, Federal spending, climate change and others. Those differences have been well-publicized over many years, are well known to voters, and should inoculate him from Democratic efforts to paint a prospective McCain presidency as a “third Bush term”. Although Sen. McCain rightly describes himself as a “proud conservative Republican” and a “foot soldier in the Reagan Revolution,” he is anything but a “typical” Republican and his maverick record and independent instincts should resonate with centrist Republican, Democrat and unaffiliated voters.
That Sen. McCain is now running statistically even in national polls with the likely Democratic nominee, Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) in this seemingly toxic political environment for Republicans, is instructive. Congressional Republicans need not … indeed must not … wait for their party’s September national convention and the adoption of their party’s platform. They should act now to turn the page on the last seven years, embrace John McCain as their leader, offer and force votes on bold alternatives to what the Democrats offer legislatively on the floor of Congress (or rhetorically on the campaign trail), and tap into that reservoir of political support that John McCain enjoys which, if the recent special elections in Illinois, Louisiana and Mississippi are any guide, is now abandoning them.
For its part, the Wholesaler-Distributor Political Action Committee (WDPAC) will, as the 2008 election cycle matures, be unveiling its endorsements in races for the United States Senate, House of Representatives, and the presidency. As always, WDPAC’s endorsements will identify candidates for Federal office that most closely reflect our members’ pro-business, pro-growth, limited government agenda of low taxes, fiscally responsible spending restraint, less regulation, less litigation, and greater freedom for business owners and leaders to manage their companies, navigate competitive markets, and earn and retain profits.
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