For the GOP, a Base Hit Isn't Enough

By Sarah Chamberlain Resnick
Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The inside-the-Beltway crowd has been chattering about the need for Republicans to reconnect with the "conservative base." Columnists, talking heads and other so-called experts have been going on at length about the need for the GOP to motivate this base to save our congressional majorities in the fall. While this may make for interesting banter on the Sunday morning talk shows, the reality is that Republican majorities in the House and Senate do not rest on the base alone. While keeping that segment of the party motivated is certainly an important factor in the November midterms, it isn't enough. To maintain our majorities, particularly in the House, our party must reach out to independent and swing voters.

A recent Cook Political Report/RT Strategies poll gave Democrats an 11-point generic ballot advantage on the question, "Which party would you like to see in control of Congress?" Not surprisingly, by a margin of 87 percent to 8, self-identified Republicans say they prefer Republican control. By similar margins, self-identified Democrats prefer Democratic control. The 11-point advantage for Democrats is due not to an unmotivated base but to a dramatic shift among independents against Republican control of Congress. By a greater than 2-to-1 margin (46 percent to 21 percent), independents say they prefer Democratic control of the House.

Against this backdrop, it's not surprising that Democrats are pinning their hopes of retaking the House on what has been dubbed the Northeast Strategy, which targets Republican incumbents in such blue states as New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New Hampshire. According to the New York Times, independent analysts say at least a dozen races in these states will be competitive. And Republican incumbents in closely divided or blue-leaning, Northeastern districts rely heavily on independent voters to provide the margin of victory on Election Day.

In what may be the cruelest of ironies, if Republicans are punished by independent voters in the midterms, it will be the centrist, independent Republicans from the Northeast who will be the most likely victims. For Democratic strategists and left-wing interest groups hoping for a Speaker Pelosi, a Republican legislative agenda that plays only to the conservative base this year is a dream come true.

For Republicans to hold the House, we must win back disaffected independent swing voters. To do this, Republicans in the House must pursue a legislative agenda that reflects the values and priorities of average Americans. In the poll cited above, independents list their top five concerns as jobs and the economy, Iraq, health care, gasoline prices, and education. Independent swing voters want more than just empty rhetoric and divisive wedge politics -- they want results.

Centrist Republicans in the House are showing leadership on the issues independent voters care about. Nancy Johnson of Connecticut and Fred Upton of Michigan have spearheaded the effort to protect critical investments in education and health-care programs during this year's budget process. Efforts to curb skyrocketing gas prices through tough new legislation on price gouging have been championed by Heather Wilson of New Mexico. Mike Castle of Delaware and Jim Gerlach of Pennsylvania have led the way on ethics reform designed to restore and protect the integrity of the legislative process. On issue after issue, centrist Republicans in the House are fighting for an agenda that offers common-sense solutions to the problems facing our nation. Republican leadership in Washington should support and encourage these centrist efforts to reach out to independent swing voters.

In 1994 a Republican tidal wave brought our party into control in the House and Senate. Success at the polls that year didn't rely solely on a motivated conservative base. From 1992 to 1994 the Republican percentage among independents had grown by 10 points -- from 46 percent to 56. The Republican Revolution was a two-pronged effort relying on both a motivated conservative base and efforts to reach out to independent swing voters. To maintain that majority in 2006, we'd do well to remember the lessons of 1994.

The writer is executive director of the Republican Main Street Partnership, an organization of moderate Republicans that includes a number of members of Congress and other officials.

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