Party leaders agree that the GOP has had a rough go of it at the polls in recent years.
How could they not?
Since 2004, they've gone from 55 Senate seats to no more than 43 once this year's last winners are determined, and from a 29-seat edge in the House to a 30 seat hole—and now they've lost the presidency, too.
They differ, though, on whether the heavy losses Republicans suffered in the past two election cycles were a result of unique circumstances and the ever-swinging political pendulum or structural problems that could keep them shut out of power for years to come.
GOP officials and strategists at party conferences last week offered sharply contrasting assessments of what went wrong, and of how difficult it will be to rebuild. Perhaps not surprisingly, the split tended to fall along generational lines.
Older party hands pointed to John McCain’s lackluster campaign and the difficult terrain Republicans found themselves battling on this year, and eschewed any sky-is-falling rhetoric. The up-and-comers, meanwhile, sounded the alarm of impending permanent minority status unless the party changes.
“I have looked down at the grave of the Republican Party and this ain’t it,” assured Mississippi Gov. and 90s-era RNC chairman Haley Barbour, “I’ve seen it a lot worse."
Barbour, speaking on a panel session at the Republican Governor’s Association meeting in Miami devoted to sifting through this year’s electoral destruction, recalled serving as executive director of his state party in the aftermath of President Nixon's resignation, when Democrats elected 49 “Watergate Babies” to the House in 1974.
It got so bad, Barbour recalled, that there was a task force set up to consider whether Republicans should change their name.
As for this year, Barbour argued there was a way to defeat Obama—by rendering him unacceptable to American voters.
“And the McCain campaign did not choose to try to make that argument,” he observed.
RNC Chairman Mike Duncan, who has worked at the highest levels of Kentucky and national Republican politics for decades, expressed optimism about the GOP’s prospects for the 2010 mid-term elections, suggesting the GOP losses this year were a result of a toxic stew very much unique to the cycle.
“The mood of the country is what was bad in this campaign,” Duncan said in an interview at the governor’s meeting. “It was 90-10 wrong track, you had the war, we had the economy going south on us, we had the third-term curse, all those things.”
What it was not, he insisted—offering post-election polling that showed voters still supported right-leaning positions, just not McCain, to make his case—was a rejection of the party’s conservative philosophy.
“If you look at the American electorate, and where they stand and what they believe—we’re in good shape.”
A group of younger Republicans expressed a very different view, warning that the GOP was on the verge of irrelevance if it did not make changes to appeal to a changing electorate.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty opened up a luncheon speech to his fellow governors by noting that excuses could be made, citing the unpopularity of President Bush, the Iraq war and the poor state of the economy.
But, he continued, such a rationale was “not fair and it’s not complete.” The party's problem, he said, is far more grave.
“We cannot be a majority governing party when we essentially cannot compete in the northeast; we are losing our ability to compete in the Great Lakes states, we cannot compete on the west coast,” Pawlenty argued, also citing similar problems in the mid-Atlantic and interior west. “Similarly, we cannot compete and prevail as a majority governing party when we have a significant deficit as we do with woman, where we have a large deficit with Hispanics, where we have a large deficit with African-American voters, where we have a large deficit with people of modest incomes.”
While just 43 percent of whites voted for Obama, the group now makes up just 74% of the electorate, down from 89% in 1980. And that trend is accelerating. Just since 2003, whites' share of the electorate fell four percentage points, while blacks, Latinos and Asians increased by three points, to 23 percent, and gave the Democrat 95%, 66% and 61% support respectively.
Later, talking to reporters, Pawlenty put it more plainly: “The Republican Party is going to need more than just a comb-over.”
He doesn’t advocate for a major ideological shift—few prominent voices in the party are—but rather for aggressively offering solutions on issues such as health care, energy and education that have been viewed as Democratic turf.
Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, 48, made a similar case.
“I’m not one who buys the idea that it’s just an aberration,” Huntsman said, speaking at a press conference during the RGA meetings.
Like Pawlenty, Huntsman said Republicans had to come to terms with a country increasingly different from the one that, until this year, had favored Republicans in seven out of the past 10 presidential elections.
"We’re fundamentally staring down a demographic shift that we’ve never seen before in America,” he observed.
Huntsman singled out the environment as one issue that was doing severe damage to the party, especially among younger voters, supported Obama by overwhelmingly numbers.
"We as Republicans can’t shy away from speaking the word 'environment,' and we shouldn’t shy away from speaking the words 'climate change,'" Huntsman told reporters. "When you’ve got a body of science that already is rendering certain judgments about what is happening in our world, for us to shy away, say it doesn’t matter as an issue, I think is foolhardy, it’s short-sighted and it’s bound to do us damage in the longer-term."
In some sense, the proponents of each viewpoint are espousing the role demanded by their individual prospects. As prospective 2012 presidential candidates and relatively young governors, Pawlenty and Huntsman want to be seen as figures who can lead the comeback, while Duncan, who is pursuing another term as party chairman, is best served to downplay the losses that took place on his watch this cycle.
Other younger Republicans, though, share the position that the GOP's problems are substantial.
At a “lessons-learned” conference in South Carolina over the weekend comprised of GOP state chairman and other prominent party activists, there was widespread sentiment that Republicans had a serious problem on their hands.
“I think one of the biggest things we’re facing is a lack of credibility,” observed Pete Ricketts, the 44-year-old former COO of Ameritrade who fell two points short of knocking off Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson in 2006. “The American people don’t trust us, they don’t believe what we’re going to say.”
Ricketts, now a Republican national committeeman from Nebraska, recalled conversations he’d have with Democratic friends in the days leading up to the election that he said underscore the enormity of the party’s poor brand name.
“They would say, ‘Look, the Republican Party is supposed to be about fiscal responsibility and you oversaw a huge increase in spending; you’re supposed to be really good at managing the economy, yet we’ve got this financial meltdown; you’re supposed to be good at defense, but the first few years of the war were not managed well.”
Robin Smith, 45, chairs the Republican Party in Tennessee, one of the few states where the party made gains this year, capturing the state House and state Senate for the first time since Reconstruction with a conservative message that plays well in the South.
But Smith was frank about what it may take for the GOP to be rejuvenated elsewhere.
“I think the Republican Party now is at a point in its life in maturity where we’re going to have to have regional messages,” she said, speaking in between sessions at the conference near Myrtle Beach.
In many regions, though, the party is struggling. With Chris Shays losing his bid for an 11th term in Connecticut, the party is now entirely shut out of the House's New England delegation for the first time since the founding of the party.
The party should not compromise its core “DNA” of small government and lower taxes, Smith added, but ought to allow for some deviation where politically necessary.
“We can’t just hang our hat on one social message,” she said.
Back at the governor’s conference, GOP pollster Frank Luntz, 46, warned that not only were the party’s problems real and profound, but they were urgent, too.
Noting that redistricting—the decennial process where the party that controls the state can redraw voting districts to consolidate their own power—was coming up after the 2010 census, Luntz made the case that the GOP is in “deep trouble.”
Republicans, though, now control just 21 governorships, and Democrats rule over nearly twice as many state legislatures, and every one in the east north of Virginia except for Pennsylvania.
“Republicans got destroyed in 1964, they had three election cycles to catch up," he said. "We got destroyed in 1974, we have three election cycles to catch up. They’ve been destroyed in 2006 and 2008—they have only one election cycle left.”