washingtonpost.com
In Northeast, Lost in a Blue Wave
Region's GOP Moderates Alienated by Party Agenda, Some Leaders Say

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 11, 2008

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. -- Among the biggest casualties from last week's election here in the Northeast may be the Republican Party itself.

A map of the states won by President-elect Barack Obama shows a northeastern wall of blue, a region now as reliably Democratic as the South was before the mid-1960s.

With the defeat here in Connecticut of 11-term Rep. Christopher Shays, Republicans lost their lone House member from New England, the region that also includes Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.

Sen. John E. Sununu of New Hampshire lost his reelection bid, leaving the entire Northeast -- New England plus New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania -- with just four Republican senators: Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. (Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut is an independent).

In addition, Democrats in Connecticut tightened their grip on the state legislature, taking a veto-proof two-thirds majority in the state Senate and swelling their majority in the House to 114 of 151 members.

In New York, Democrats seized control of the state Senate for the first time since the 1960s, creating de facto one-party rule, with the party in charge of all three branches of government and all statewide elected offices. The number of New York Republicans in the U.S. Congress shrank to three out of 29.

If there was any solace for Republicans in this region, it was that they still control three governorships: Jim Douglas was just reelected in Vermont, and Govs. M. Jodi Rell in Connecticut and Donald L. Carcieri in Rhode Island were not on the ballot this year.

The plight of Northeast Republicans has raised the question: What happened to the party that produced Nelson Rockefeller and Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. and that spawned the Bush family dynasty of Connecticut?

What happened, say some current and former Republican leaders, is that the national party moved away from the issues of fiscal conservatism, small government and lower taxes. As the base of the party shifted to the South and West, social conservatives and evangelicals moved to the forefront, and issues such as abortion, school prayer and gay marriage took primacy on the national party's agenda -- in the process turning off more moderate voters in this part of the country.

"I'm a Northeasterner. I grew up in New York City," said Christopher Healy, chairman of the Connecticut Republican Party. "The evangelical members of the party have their issues, and their issues are important to them." But here, he said, "the Northeastern brand of Republican philosophy . . . is based on smaller government and less taxes. We're not interested in what's going on in the bedroom."

Former senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island was the epitome of the moderate-to-liberal northeastern Republican -- strongly pro-choice on abortion, a supporter of gay marriage and stem cell research, an opponent of the war in Iraq. As a fiscal conservative, Chafee opposed President Bush's tax cuts.

In 2006, he was challenged on the right in the Republican primary, and lost his Senate seat to Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse. He left the party to become an independent and has bitter words for the more conservative elements that he said have taken over the party.

"They got their voice in the '90s and started scorning us as RINOs (Republicans in name only) and funding the primary opponents that we had," Chafee said in a telephone interview. "The right-wing talk show hosts and the Ann Coulters and that ilk didn't understand that for the Republican Party to win, we had to have fiscal responsibility.

"I consider myself an old green-eyeshade Republican, watching the books, looking out for the environment, not getting involved in these foreign quagmires, looking out for our constitutional protections," Chafee added. He said the party's emphasis on social issues, and a strategy of using wedge politics to energize the base, was alienating voters in the Northeast.

"How many more seats does it take before it sinks in?" Chafee said.

Some Republican officials say it is imperative for the party to overcome its difficulties in the Northeast. "In order for Republicans to have a shot at winning back the majority in the House, we must find a way to effectively compete in the Northeast," said Ken Spain, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Republicans this year were competing in a hugely hostile environment, so perhaps many of this year's losses were inevitable. President Bush's dismal approval ratings are the lowest here of any region in the country. The recession here has hit hard, and energy prices are a major concern. The Iraq war remains deeply unpopular in the Northeast.

In addition, new voter registrations this year overwhelmingly favored the Democrats.

In the case of Shays, "he was swimming against an extremely strong current in Connecticut," said Samuel Best, director of the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut. "He was caught in this crosswind, plus the demographic of his district and the state going more Democratic."

Shays lost the election largely in the district's three biggest cities, Stamford, Norwalk and here in Bridgeport, which also has the state's largest percentage of African American residents and where enthusiasm for Barack Obama can be measured by the large Obama signs in storefronts and restaurants. The increased participation of black voters and young, first-time voters here has pushed Connecticut decidedly toward the Democrats.

"Republicans are going to find an uphill battle," Best said. "I think we can see a leftward shift in Connecticut, and it's one that people don't think will shift back anytime soon."

Some northeastern Republicans believe the party made a mistake by not figuring out a way to speak to young voters. "We have failed to reach out to new voters, pure and simple," said Thomas Ognibene, a Republican candidate for mayor of New York in 2005. "Not only have we failed to articulate a message, we don't even know how to reach out to them. Even I'm out of touch with it -- Facebook, the Internet."

"Everybody says the Republican Party is dead," Ognibene said. "But we weren't killed by the Democrats. The Republican Party committed suicide. We didn't articulate our plan and reach out to a new voter base."

Former congressman Guy Molinari, the longtime Staten Island Republican chief, said that after Tuesday's results, "in certain parts of the country, absolutely, [the party] is in danger of disappearing." He said the job now is to begin searching for new leaders, find ways to speak to new groups of voters and launch a voter registration drive to try to blunt the Democrats' increasing edge.

"It's going to take a long time in the rebuilding process," Molinari said.

He and others said they were hoping Rudy Giuliani makes a run for New York governor in 2010, as a first step toward rebuilding the Republican organization in New York. "He would be our savior, absolutely," he said.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company