Will pummeled GOP be able to get up off the canvas?

November 18, 2008|By THOMAS F. SCHALLER

Just four years ago, a flood of books and essays hit newsstands and shelves, all diagnosing what went wrong with the Democratic Party and how to fix it. A cottage industry emerged, of which my own book was a small part.

What a difference a few years makes.

After the 2006 midterm and 2008 presidential election cycles, a new set of analyses is emergent, asking the same question but of the other major party: What's wrong with the Republicans?

In those back-to-back cycles, the Republicans have lost not only the White House but also a dozen U.S. senators and more than 50 House seats, seven net governorships and hundreds of state legislative seats. (Senate contests in Alaska, Minnesota and Georgia, plus a few House races, are yet to be determined.)

The new Republican minority stands at just above 40 percent across the board. Presuming it loses the Alaska Senate seat and holds the ones in Minnesota and Georgia, the GOP will be down to 43 senators, about 44 percent of House seats and 21 governors (42 percent). In the 2004 cycle, the national two-party registration split was even, but by 2008, the Democrats boasted a 7-point advantage, 39 to 32.

Considering all that, Sen. John McCain's capture of 46 percent of the national popular vote while running against the drag of a highly unpopular incumbent president - and facing a talented, well-funded candidate leading a more organized, unified and motivated party - doesn't look so bad.

But the Republicans have reduced themselves to a regionalized party, one based in the former Confederacy with pockets of support in the Plains states and Mountain West. Since 2004, they have hemorrhaged support on the coasts. The Democrats now hold 88 percent of Senate seats and 82 percent of House seats in the Northeast, and almost two-thirds of congressional seats in the 13 states of the far West.

As I forecast in Whistling Past Dixie, the Republicans had better be careful or they will be relegated to the fate of dominating the South but little else. Though the situation is not that grim - the Republicans are, in fact, still surprisingly competitive in the Midwest, where Democrats should next focus their attention - the GOP hasn't been this low in four decades.

Looking ahead two years, might 2010 present Republicans the opportunity for a good comeback, like the one they mounted in 1966, after Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats had a national landslide in 1964?

Possibly. It will be President Barack Obama's first midterm cycle, and Democrats will be defending a lot of territory, including Maryland's 1st District, a traditionally Republican seat won by Frank M. Kratovil Jr. in a race that went down to the wire. The Republicans hold some Senate and House seats that could be targeted, but having been narrowed down to the core areas of support for the party, the GOP may see more places to attack than protect.

But Republicans hoping for a repeat in 2010 of the 1994 "Republican revolution" that swept Democrats out of office during Bill Clinton's first midterm election cycle may want to temper their excitement. For one thing, the national momentum is working against the Republican brand today in ways that it was working for the GOP last decade. The damage done by George W. Bush and his administration cannot be repaired overnight.

Also, those 12 rookie Democratic senators who won in 2006 or 2008 will not be on the ballot in 2010. And aside from the handful of rookie House Democrats who lost in 2008, members of that big class of 2006 have now survived their first and riskiest bids for re-election.

The other complication is resources. Because interest group money gravitates to the majority party, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee - as in 2008, the DCCC will be chaired in 2010 by Maryland's Rep. Chris Van Hollen - should enjoy sizable funding advantages. And we already saw what Mr. Obama's Internet-based fundraising machine and its 3 million-plus donors can do.

The Republicans are in dire straits. But as recent history proves, the fates of the major parties can switch very quickly.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears regularly in The Sun. His e-mail is schaller67@gmail.com.

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