Thursday, November 12, 2009

GOP's Worsening Civil War Could Wreck Its Chances For an Electoral Comeback in 2010

Right-Wing Hard-Liners Both Inside and Outside the Party -- Including the Poobahs of Fox News and Talk Radio, as Well as the 'Teabaggers' -- Have Rendered the GOP Leadership Impotent and Hijacked the Party, Driving It So Far Rightward That It Cost the Republicans a Congressional Seat They Held For More Than 140 Years; Florida Is Likely Their Next Target

Abraham Lincoln, the nation's 16th president, who led the country through the Civil War, famously said that "A house divided against itself cannot stand." He was, of course, referring to the nation after the secession of 16 Southern states to the Confederacy. But who would have thought that, nearly 150 years after he was elected president, Lincoln's words would apply to the very Republican Party he helped co-found in Ripon, Wisconsin in 1854 with other anti-slavery expansion activists? Today, the GOP bears no resemblance to the Party of Lincoln and is on the brink of being torn asunder in its own ideological civil war. (Photo courtesy Craig Pendleton/University of Maine, Farmington)

(Posted 5:00 a.m. EST Thursday, Nobember 12, 2009)



Bob Dylan famously sang that you don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows. The wind from the November 2009 off off-year elections -- like the 2008 presidential election -- is blowing unmistakably toward change.

In 2008, Democrats owned the change message, thanks to the disastrous presidency of George W. Bush. Now Republicans as the party out of power are claiming rights to it. On life support just a year ago, Republicans now have an opportunity to regain some, perhaps all, of the House and Senate seats Democrats won in 2006 and 2008 when Republicans handed them control of Congress.

But the wacky events in the special U.S. House election in New York's 23rd Congressional District offer an alternative scenario: the far right wing of the Republican Party is trading its own party’s chances of a comeback for ideological purity. In New York 23, Republicans managed to convert a dead-bang winner into a Democratic pickup.

A special election in the northernmost congressional district of New York became necessary because President Obama appointed the incumbent Republican John McHugh secretary of the Army. Cynics might suggest that the White House political team pushed McHugh’s nomination because it gave them an opportunity to win another congressional seat in the Northeast, where Republican members of Congress are becoming increasingly extinct.

Just last spring, Democrats won a special election in New York's 20th Congressional District, also upstate, that historically leaned Republican. The GOP nominated a long-time state assemblyman with impeccable conservative credentials. Democrat Scott Murphy then eked out a victory by linking him to the discredited Bush policies. Determined not to make the same mistake, 23rd District Republicans nominated a younger more moderate assemblywoman -- Dede Scozzafava -- over the conservative Doug Hoffman, a businessman.


Had the party rallied around its nominee, there is little doubt she would have prevailed. Polling gave Scozzafava the early lead over Democrat Bill Owens, a lawyer. The district makeup gave Democrats an outside chance at best of winning the special.

But then Hoffman, running on New York’s Conservative Party line and bolstered by well-funded attacks on Scozzafava from out-of-state conservative groups like the Club for Growth and radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, began to make up ground on the underfunded nominee. Republican presidential hopefuls tripped over one another to endorse Hoffman after former Alaska Governor and 2008 GOP vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin threw in with the conservative.

By the weekend before the election, Scozzafava was in free fall and dropped out. Bitter over her shabby treatment from the conservative outsiders, she endorsed the moderate Democrat Owens. The schism allowed a Democrat to win territory that had been Republican since the Civil War.

Republicans now rationalize their loss by arguing that Scozzafava was out of the mainstream of the party and had been nominated by party bosses (i.e., district Republican county chairs) rather than through a primary.


But conservatives have already set their sights on other party moderates, including Florida governor and U.S. Senate candidate Charlie Crist, promising divisive and expensive primary battles next year. Viable moderates, if they survive the nomination process, will emerge compromised, scarred, and in some cases broke. This systematic attack on moderate Republicans by angry "Tea Party" activists and right-wing media celebrities like Limbaugh and Fox News' Glen Beck is designed to purge the ideologically impure out of the party.

Some GOP leaders like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who refused to back Hoffman on the grounds that the local nominating process, whatever flaws it may have, deserves to be respected by the national party, caution that the conservative attacks on moderate Republicans is a recipe for disaster.

Indeed, the controversy has already begun to overshadow the party’s gubernatorial victories in New Jersey and Virginia.


Democrats, who can barely contain their glee over this growing civil war within the Republican Party, would be well advised to pay attention to the real lessons from the 2009 elections. Voters on Tuesday cast their ballots against the incumbent party.

In New York 23, that was a Republican Party at war with itself. The seemingly popular and effective Republican-turned-independent New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg even struggled. But in New Jersey and Virginia, incumbents were Democrats unable to demonstrate they were up to solving their states’ problems.

And in the 2010 congressional elections, voters will be asked to re-elect a Democratic incumbent party apparently unable to get the economy moving or to pass health care reform. Exit polling indicates that voter anger is rooted in a lack of progress on key issues, especially the economy.

Even as President Obama remains popular in New Jersey and Virginia, independents switched to Republican candidates. Even more ominous, the coalition that helped elect Obama didn’t show up to vote. Obama became the first Democrat to carry Virginia and Indiana since 1964 because of a large infusion of young and African Americans voters. But neither Jon Corzine nor Virginia Democrat Creigh Deeds offered either voting group incentive to stay involved in 2009.

One of the main reasons for the Republican takeover in Congress in 1994 was that too many Democrats stayed home. Now Democratic congressional incumbents have to devise a strategy to energize the Democratic base without further alienating independents.


All of this previews competitive races in Indiana’s 2nd, 9th, and possibly 8th congressional districts. The Republican Congressional Campaign Committee has already announced it is targeting those races in 2010. Hoosier Democrats Joe Donnelly and Baron Hill, in particular, will likely face stiff and well-funded opposition.

If today’s voter anger is rooted in dissatisfaction and disillusionment over the failure of the promised change to materialize, then incumbent members like Donnelly and Hill will need to demonstrate progress by next year. Democrats must quickly come together and pass health care reform. And they will have to show that their reform is an improvement over the status quo.

Even more difficult, the economy must show clear signs of improvement. Voters are angry that banks that were bailed out with their tax dollars are now showing huge profits while they struggle to make ends meet. Hill and Donnelly must convince voters they are on their side rather than the side of Wall Street and special interests. That is becoming increasingly difficult for candidates who have to raise $2 to $3 million to run a competitive House race.


For Republicans, the challenge is to demonstrate they offer something better. Republicans have yet to provide any real alternative to the Obama agenda. And, the Republican image remains extremely poor as they have yet to redefine themselves after the Bush presidency brought them down. Meanwhile, many in the party remain in denial about both their image problems and the looming war between ideological and pragmatic wings.

In an off-year election that will almost certainly be nationalized, both parties and their candidates have a lot of work to do to win over voters who aren’t enthralled with either side. Yet, neither Republicans nor Democrats seem to grasp the change that voters crave.

(Chris Sautter is a Democratic consultant based in Washington. In 2008 and earlier this year, he served as one of Al Franken’s lead recount attorneys. This article first appeared on the Howey Politics Indiana Web site and is re-posted with the permission of its publisher.)

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Volume IV, Number 86
Guest Commentary Copyright 2009, NewsLink, Inc. Reposted with permission.
The 'Skeeter Bites Report Copyright 2009, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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Anonymous said...

This is more about jobs, the economy and health care reform as far as the Dems are concerned. If we see some progress economy wise and the health care reform bill passes with a public option, they should hold their majority. We need to talk about 1) our economy has been on a downward slide since 9/11 Does anyone realize this?
2) We are being forced to adjust to the global economy and the fact that companies during Repub control moved the jobs overseas (we make almost nothing here anymore)

The Republicans offer nothing and as a political junkie I just don't see how electing them is going to improve things. So I sure do hope that they continue the purity purge of the Repub Party. We do need a strong 2 party system, but we don't need a party that is trying to turn us into a theocracy.

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