Scott Brown's Senate win boosts GOP campaign efforts

By Philip Rucker and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 23, 2010; A05

Emboldened by Scott Brown's stunning win in Massachusetts, Republicans are convinced this is their year to climb out of the political abyss and capture congressional seats and governor's offices held by Democrats across the country.

The anti-establishment anger that propelled Brown to victory in Tuesday's special senatorial election is the clearest sign yet of a political climate that endangers Democrats who control Washington, but it is not the only indicator. The GOP swept gubernatorial races in November in Virginia and New Jersey, two states Barack Obama won in 2008. Obama's approval ratings have also fallen amid months of gridlock on Capitol Hill as congressional Democrats have struggled to pass health-care legislation.

GOP leaders immediately seized on this momentum, signing up volunteers, recruiting candidates and calling donors who gave money to Republicans in past campaign cycles but shunned the party once it lost power in 2008. On Capitol Hill, party leaders are drafting a policy agenda that Republicans can campaign on this year.

"Scott Brown's victory in the special election for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts shows our party can win anywhere in the country when we have a principled, conservative candidate," Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele wrote in a fundraising e-mail.

The National Republican Congressional Committee put Brown's pollster, Neil Newhouse, on the phone with donors to talk strategy. Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), tasked with recruiting House candidates, called several people considering running to tell them the time is now.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee highlighted polls showing GOP candidates leading Democrats in nearly a dozen races, including states Obama carried in 2008: Colorado, Delaware, Nevada and Pennsylvania. "If you can win in Massachusetts as a Republican, you can win anywhere," said Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), the committee chairman. "No incumbent is safe."

But there is no guarantee that disaffected voters will rally behind Republicans in November's midterm elections, and polling suggests that the GOP brand is just as damaged as the Democratic brand.

Americans have no more confidence in congressional Republicans than in congressional Democrats to make good decisions for the country, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll this month. Three-quarters of those polled said they have "just some" or no confidence in congressional Republicans.

Republican leaders and strategists must figure out how to direct voter frustration behind its candidates to realize the party's ambition of reclaiming power. "It's sort of like trying to surf on a tsunami," Cornyn said.

Republicans cautioned against viewing the GOP takeover of the Senate seat held for half a century by the late Edward M. Kennedy as evidence that the party's fortunes had permanently changed.

"The American people have fallen out of love with the current direction, but they haven't fallen in love with Republicans," said Rep. Adam H. Putnam (R-Fla.). "Last year was about picking up ourselves and dusting ourselves off. Now we need a direction and vision."

Although Republicans won congressional majorities in 1994 by campaigning on a common conservative theme -- the GOP led by Rep. Newt Gingrich (Ga.) promised voters a "Contract With America" -- party strategists think discontent with Democrats will be more influential than a common agenda.

Still, House Republican Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio) recently hired a new chief of staff, Barry Jackson, an architect of the "Contract With America." Boehner also tapped McCarthy to produce a policy document for Republicans to campaign on this year.

"We will have a document, and we will guarantee people that there will be a vote on each issue in that document in the next Congress, if we're in the majority," Boehner said in an interview on Michael Medved's radio talk show.

Republicans signaled they would continue their strategy of opposing much of the Democratic agenda in lockstep. Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) said Brown's victory -- he campaigned against health-care reform and opposed the $787 billion stimulus -- shows the GOP should stick with its positions. "He won with traditional Republican positions," Kingston said. "He didn't run from any of that stuff."

But the challenge for Republicans to win back majorities in Congress remains daunting. The GOP needs to win 40 additional House seats and 10 Senate seats.

Further complicating the GOP's calculus is the Tea Party movement, which has swelled in the past year and flexed its political muscle in November by forcing the moderate Republican nominee to withdraw from a congressional race in New York. Even though the Tea Party-backed conservative candidate lost to Democrat Bill Owens, the race showed that GOP candidates could not take the conservative grass-roots movement for granted.

"I think you're going to see this massive effort to defeat incumbents across the board, even if they're Republicans," said Eric Odom, executive director of American Liberty Alliance, a Tea Party group. "Republicans need to be really shaking in their boots."

Strategists warned there is no blueprint that can be lifted from Massachusetts and applied in other states. "Every campaign is different," said Ron Kaufman, a former RNC chairman. "You learn lessons from campaigns if you're smart, but you don't say, 'How can I copy this, put it in a cookie press and press it out across every state?' "

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