Young Republicans Jockey in the House

By Paul Kane and Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 6, 2008

Younger, more conservative lawmakers moved yesterday to assert their influence in the House Republican caucus as the GOP began the traditional period of soul-searching that follows a major electoral defeat. Conservatives also began jockeying to fill the post of Republican National Committee chairman early next year.

Republican leaders, especially on Capitol Hill, said the GOP had strayed too far from its traditional principle of limited government and must reclaim its reputation as the party most committed to cutting spending and taxes. But some were also deeply concerned about the drubbing the party's standard-bearer, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), absorbed among Hispanic and well-educated voters, as well as affluent suburbanites, and said that a more fundamental rethinking of the GOP message is in order.

On Capitol Hill, House GOP leader John A. Boehner (Ohio) appeared likely to hold onto his leadership post, but the No. 3 Republican, Adam H. Putnam of Florida, a major proponent of the $700 billion Wall Street rescue plan, resigned his post late yesterday.

The fate of the No. 2 Republican, Minority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.), was uncertain, and one of the younger party mavericks, Virginia's Eric Cantor, was poised to replace him amid widespread discontent among party rank-and-file with the Election Day performance.

As party leaders digested the disappointing election results, they also began to position themselves for the January election of a new chairman of the Republican National Committee, a post that will take on special significance. The current committee chairman is Robert M. "Mike" Duncan, who some said is considering running to keep the post.

All the party officials who have mentioned an interest in the race are traditional conservatives -- including GOP chairmen in South Carolina and Michigan -- but party activists are looking for someone who can close the gap with Democrats in technology and fundraising and otherwise rebuild the GOP infrastructure.

The RNC election is "the most important thing happening in the next six months," said anti-tax activist Grover Norquist.

Norquist is one of 20 conservative leaders who will be meeting today at the Virginia weekend home of veteran conservative activist and fundraiser L. Brent Bozell III to discuss the election results and the way forward for the conservative movement. Others expected to attend include Al Regnery, publisher of the American Spectator; direct-mail expert Richard Norman; and Leonard A. Leo, executive vice president of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group.

The meeting is one of many formal and informal sessions scheduled for the next several months, as GOP activists begin devising a strategy for a period in the political wilderness. In years past, GOP officials have used such periods effectively, honing their message or finding new leaders, but they face serious problems among minority voters and in many of the biggest battleground states. Officials are divided over the best way back to power.

On Election Day, exit polls showed that self-identified Democrats outnumbered Republicans 39 percent to 32 percent. Four years ago, there was an even divide at 37 percent. This shift was particularly apparent in states that went from red to blue: Virginia went from a four-point GOP advantage in party identification to a six-point Democratic margin.

Meanwhile, the party lost serious ground among Hispanics across the United States. "The party was bald-faced in its courting of Hispanic voters in 2004, and you saw a jump," said a leading GOP strategist who insisted on anonymity to speak more candidly about the party's concerns. "At any point in this election cycle, did anyone in the Republican Party say to Hispanics, 'We want your vote, and this is what we want to do'?"

Still, conservatives tried to take heart over the ideological composition of the electorate, which did not change much. Conservatives still outnumber liberals, though they are fewer than self-identified moderates.

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