The Take

Primaries school: What GOP can learn before midterm elections

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 23, 2010

Democrats got an election-year wake-up call in January when they lost the Massachusetts Senate seat long held by Edward M. Kennedy. Did Republicans get their wake-up call last week?

Republicans lost a winnable race in the special House election to fill the seat of the late John Murtha (D). If the enthusiasm gap between energized Republicans and demoralized Democrats were as strong as the GOP has asserted, the party should have won the seat. Instead, it lost by eight percentage points.

In Kentucky, Republican voters picked libertarian conservative and "tea party" favorite Rand Paul as their nominee for Senate over an establishment-favored Trey Grayson, Kentucky's secretary of state. Paul's post-election ramblings about civil rights immediately exposed not only his shortcomings as a candidate but the double-edged sword that the tea party movement is to the GOP.

In politics today, the narrative is king. Through the early months of this year, the narrative -- stoked by Republican spinmeisters -- held that President Obama and his agenda were so unpopular that the Democrats were almost certain to lose the House in November and possibly even the Senate. Last week's elections were a reminder that the narrative can sometimes get ahead of the facts.

Nothing has changed to alter the reality that Democrats are on the defensive in the midterm elections. Voter anger -- aimed at incumbents, the establishment, the president, Washington -- will fall most heavily on the Democrats in November. History and the state of the economy make Democratic losses a virtual certainty.

But what Republicans may have lost sight of is that they are hardly dealing from a position of strength. They are a party with a favorable rating of 40 percent, 10 points lower than that of the Democrats, and a job-approval rating for their congressional wing is below 30 percent. If many voters disagree with the direction Obama is taking the country, they clearly aren't sold on what Republicans are offering.

That's in part because it isn't clear what Republicans are offering. Is it the conservatism of Rand Paul? The new hero of the tea party got himself so tangled in knots during television appearances that he retired to the sidelines for the weekend, canceling a scheduled appearance Sunday morning on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Paul said he abhors discrimination. But few Republicans share his apparent belief that private businesses should have the right to discriminate and that the federal government should not use its powers to stop discrimination. When party leaders heard what he had said, they either begged ignorance of the candidate's exact words or put themselves in opposition to his sentiments.

But what are the boundaries of the tea party movement's anti-government rhetoric? What role do the activists who have come to Washington to protest Obama's "takeover" of the health-care system see for the federal government? How would they bring the federal budget into balance, and how quickly? What kind of regulation do they favor for big banks or corporations responsible for oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico? What else would they like to repeal beyond health care?

House GOP leaders will launch an effort this week aimed at producing an agenda for the party, but as long as the tea party is knocking off establishment-backed candidates, what are voters to conclude about who really speaks for the Republican Party?

The special House election in Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional District was just that: a single election in one small part of a large country. But the fact that Democrats held the seat in a district that has been trending toward the GOP -- it was the only district in the nation that voted for Democrat John F. Kerry in 2004 and Republican John McCain in 2008 -- was a reminder that candidates and campaigns can make a difference.

Environmental factors alone will determine the outcome of many congressional races this fall, but not all of them -- and perhaps not enough to allow Republicans to reclaim the majority they lost in 2006.

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