Republicans seek a path to revival

Divisions still threaten a party buoyed by wins

Former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee discusses the current strengths and weaknesses of the GOP.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 8, 2009

One year after hitting bottom in the aftermath of President Obama's election, Republicans have taken their first concrete steps toward recovery. But they remain an embattled and divided force, facing an electorate still skeptical about their capacity to govern and embroiled in a struggle between party regulars and populist conservative forces over how to return to power.

With gubernatorial victories by Robert F. McDonnell in Virginia and Chris Christie in New Jersey, Republicans today are more energized than at any time since the early months of 2005, when there was talk of a durable GOP majority in the wake of President George W. Bush's reelection. A slew of factors -- the war in Iraq, the botched response to Hurricane Katrina, scandals in Congress and soaring federal spending -- quickly ended that discussion and led voters to punish Republicans at the polls in 2006 and 2008.

This year, the GOP has recorded historic lows in party identification, according to a string of national surveys. And despite concerns about Obama's agenda, the public still trusts him and the Democrats over the Republicans to deal with many national problems.

The question for Republicans now is whether Tuesday's victories will prove to be aberrations or be seen as the first real signs of a party revival.

Republicans have coalesced in opposition to Obama's economic and domestic agenda, almost unanimous in their opposition to Democrats' health-care reform efforts and hammering the president relentlessly for upward spirals in spending and unemployment. The result has been a needed morale boost to the beleaguered party. "We have seen a sea change in attitude," Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele said. "People's spirits are higher. They see a cause worth fighting for."

Democrats have used that lock-step opposition to brand the GOP as "the party of no," and predict that the conservative grass-roots base of the GOP, fueled by radio and cable talk show hosts, will drive candidates further to the right, reducing their appeal to swing voters who once again appear up for grabs.

The tension between the party's establishment and conservative insurgents is growing, and there is concern among moderates that setting litmus tests for candidates is pushing the party too far to the right. Prominent Republicans are now split in their assessment of how to move forward.

Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin has staked her identity with the grass roots against the establishment. "The cause goes on," she posted on her Facebook page after Doug Hoffman, the Conservative Party candidate she backed in a House special election in New York's 23rd District lost to Democrat Bill Owens on Tuesday night. That defeat in a seat long-held by Republicans, and the divisions it exposed, was the only blemish on the party's performance Tuesday.

Former House Republican leader Richard K. Armey said the party's future lies with the populist coalition of small government and libertarian conservatives, evangelicals and others who have joined tea party protests and challenged the Republican establishment to shun compromise with Obama and the Democrats. After New York 23, they are threatening to topple Republicans in other states who do not toe the conservative line.

"You don't attract people with pragmatism but with commitment to principles and purpose," Armey said. Republicans, he argued, "will continue to be a small, losing tent" unless the party establishment heeds the voices from the grass roots and fields candidates who fit that mold.

But Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) cited the inherent risks to the party if it appears too narrow, rigid and intolerant. "We have to decide whether we want to be a debating society or a broad-based, center-right governing coalition," he said.

Over the next several months, The Washington Post will examine the Republicans from multiple perspectives -- the party's strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and obstacles -- as a prelude to the 2010 midterm elections.

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