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Young Republicans Jockey in the House
Some Want Fundamental Rethinking of Message

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.

Many conservatives argued that President Bush and congressional Republicans damaged the party brand with new government programs such as the Medicare prescription drug plan and the creation of a Department of Homeland Security. Conservative social activist Gary Bauer said the instinct of many in the GOP will be to "embrace a clearer conservative message on things like spending and the size of government, a clearer message than they have had in recent years."

David A. Norcross, a member of the RNC from New Jersey, said: "We were supposed to have some fiscal restraint in the party, and that's a significant part of the trademark, and we didn't do that. Our basic problem is we didn't act like we said we would, and there's really nothing much worse that you can do than that."

On Capitol Hill, a group of junior Republicans, most of whom hail from the party's conservative wing, began to position themselves to take over leadership positions in both chambers of Congress, suggesting that the time of the older generation that led their so-called revolution in the 1990s had passed.

"It's wholesale changes here," said Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), a 35-year-old elected to his fourth term yesterday. "The bottom line is, [the younger members] are the leaders of the party now -- those that are left standing. We're all that's left."

Lawmakers and aides said that they expect Boehner, the last remaining member of the mid-1990s leadership team that propelled Republicans to the majority after 40 years, to be reelected despite a second consecutive campaign of double-digit losses. In a letter to House Republicans yesterday, Boehner sounded a conservative alarm.

"America remains a center-right country," he wrote. "Democrats should not make the mistake of viewing Tuesday's results as a repudiation of conservatism or a validation of big government. Neither should we. Instead of throwing in the towel, as our opponents demand, we must redouble our efforts."

The next two places on the leadership ladder may turn over, aides said. Blunt, a member of leadership for 10 years, is not likely to survive, they said, while Putnam, the chairman of the Republican conference, resigned before midnight last night.

Blunt, 58, is a reliable conservative on most issues, but his close relationship with House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) made him the go-to negotiator on critical issues when it was time to craft bipartisan deals, most recently the $700 billion financial rescue package.

The consensus candidate to replace Blunt is Cantor, the 45-year-old Virginian who has served as Blunt's deputy whip. Cantor, who said yesterday he is running for whip, is viewed by his colleagues as more instinctively conservative, even if his voting record does not reflect it. Cantor took the role of leading critic of the rescue plan and crafted an alternate proposal, which Blunt ultimately worked into the final legislation.

One of Cantor's top allies is Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), the 43-year-old freshman whom many would like to move into Cantor's role as chief deputy whip or another leadership post. A leading candidate to replace Putnam is Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Tex.), who has chaired the Republican Study Committee, a conservative caucus of more than 100 lawmakers.

Hensarling, 51, who was elected in 2002, was one of the leading opponents of the financial rescue plan and has made opposition to earmarks a leading cause. Other potential candidates for the No. 3 leadership position include Nunes, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), all conservatives.

In the Senate, John Thune (R-S.D.), a 47-year-old elected in 2004, announced he would seek a junior leadership position, while Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), reelected to a second term yesterday, is angling to take over the Senate GOP's campaign committee.

Some moderates reacted coolly to the conservatives' moves, fearful that they could further drive away independent voters who have failed to embrace Republican candidates the last two election cycles.

"They're going to have to be a welcoming party, not a party that requires an admission test," said retiring Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), a moderate on social issues.

For now, Davis said, the rank and file are just desperate to find someone willing to stand up to Democrats: "Right now, they're just looking for leaders," he said.

Staff writer Ben Pershing contributed to this report.

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