Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, speaking to fellow Republican governors in Florida last week, said the Republican Party is in deep trouble, losing its ability to compete in large swaths of America and ceding key blocs of voters to the Democrats.
Christine Todd Whitman, former Environmental Protection Agency head and governor of New Jersey, wrote in a column in the Washington Post that her party has been taken hostage by “social fundamentalists” and won’t recover until it becomes more moderate.
Area Republicans, however, aren’t as gloomy as some of the GOP’s national leaders. They believe the party needs to become more conservative — at least fiscally — rather than less-so. And they predict the Republican Party will recover to some extent even without changes because emboldened Democrats will drag the nation farther to the left than Americans want.
“Pride goes before the fall,” said Paul Bade, a Mankato resident and self-employed electronics repairman. “Republicans got very proud six years ago. The Democrats are now. ... I think people are going to discover that Democrats aren’t the answer.”
State Rep. Bob Gunther, whose district stretches from St. James to Blue Earth, said two bad elections in a row for Republicans isn’t necessarily an indication of future performance. After all, the 2006 election was held when the Iraq war was going particularly badly and scandals were plaguing the Bush administration and the Republican-controlled Congress. This year’s election came on the heels of a sharp economic downturn.
“The economy had a lot to do with this election,” said Gunther, R-Fairmont. “For some reason, the president is to blame for that, and the current president is a Republican.”
Pawlenty laid out some sobering facts for his fellow Republican governors in Florida last week.
“We cannot be a majority governing party when we essentially cannot compete in the Northeast, we are losing our ability to compete in the Great Lakes states, we cannot compete on the West Coast, we are increasingly in danger of competing in the mid-Atlantic states, and the Democrats are now winning some of the Western states,” Pawlenty said in a speech to open the conference. “That is not a formula for being a majority governing party in this nation.”
Pawlenty, listed among possible future GOP presidential candidates, went on to talk about the party’s growing vote deficit in the competition for women, Hispanics, African Americans and less-wealthy Americans.
Whitman, a member of the Bush cabinet in his first term, focused on her theory about why Republicans are losing moderate voters. President-elect Obama won moderate voters by a 21-percentage-point margin over Republican nominee John McCain, compared to the nine-point win by John Kerry over Bush in 2004.
“Unless the Republican Party ends its self-imposed captivity to social fundamentalists, it will spend a long time in the political wilderness,” Whitman wrote.
Drifting off course
Area Republicans interviewed offer a different take on their party’s standing.
“I don’t think conservatism is dead,” said Bade, 50, who has been active in GOP politics since he was 10 years old. “I think people out here can’t find conservatives to vote for.”
Party leaders — most notably Bush — have abandoned the party’s platform and principles of fiscal conservatism and limited government, Bade said. The party’s prospects will improve when it starts offering voters a slate of small-government candidates who provide a clear contrast with free-spending Democrats.
“People say why should I vote for an imitation Democrat when I can vote for the real thing?” Bade said.
Gunther said the Republican Party has lost its brand, its trademark set of issues that average Americans can relate to. Less government regulation, spending and taxing should be at the heart of it.
“Kind of like (former House Speaker Newt) Gingrich’s Contract with America,” Gunther said. “If we can develop something like that, we can have some success.”
State Sen. Dick Day ran for Congress this year but saw his party opt for a more socially conservative Republican, who lost badly to Democratic Congressman Tim Walz. Day said the GOP needs to stand first for responsible governing — particularly in spending.
The budget deficits run up by the Republican-controlled federal government “drove me crazy,” Day said. And he thought his party’s focus on abortion, gay marriage bans and other social issues — at a time when Americans were losing their jobs and homes — didn’t sit well with voters.
“Hey, I don’t blame people,” he said of those who chose to punish the GOP in federal elections.
Day noted some of the same demographic trends that Pawlenty pointed to, and those worry him. A lot of different blocs of voters are favoring Democrats right now.
“They’re ain’t nothing left (for Republicans),” Day said. “We’re going downhill fast.”
He was at a meeting recently where a Republican was talking about the need to bring Hispanics and African Americans back to their party. It’s easy to say, Day said, and harder to come up with a strategy to accomplish it.
“How do you do that? How do you bring them in?” he said. “They don’t trust us.”
Carla Shutrop, the chairman of the College Republicans at Gustavus Adolphus College, thinks Republicans can appeal to Hispanics if they get beyond simply opposing illegal immigration. Along with that, the party should support real reform in how immigrant workers come to America — providing workers the economy needs and easing the demand for illegal workers.
As for getting young people to reconsider their overwhelming support for the Democratic Party the past two elections, Shutrop believes Republicans need to become more technologically savvy. And the GOP should focus on the long-range problems that will hammer young Americans if they aren’t fixed — issues like Social Security, Medicare, health care costs and the national debt.
Younger voters are also more likely to take another look at the Republican Party when they feel the full impact of government spending once they’re working full-time, purchasing homes and raising families.
“Some minds might be changed when they start paying taxes and other things that don’t directly affect us right now,” she said.
A Democratic assist?
Area Republicans expect to have a key ally in their political resurgence — Democrats. Relying on the other side to screw up might not be the preferred strategy, but Bade expects it to happen.
Bade considers Obama’s rise to be similar to that of Adolph Hitler’s in the 1930s, and he believes there’s an outside chance that America is headed for a dictatorship. More likely is a slide to socialism or, perhaps, just an inept presidency, he said.
“I’m almost expecting the Obama administration to make a botch of things,” Bade said. “They’re too ideologically socialist, and a lot of their ideas are impractical. They just don’t add up.”
Day thinks there may be a backlash when the cost of Obama’s spending proposals begin to add up. At the same time, he doesn’t rule out the possibility that Democrats — with universal health care, tax cuts and programs aimed at helping the middle class, more regulation on corporate America — are offering what voters genuinely want.
“Maybe people want more government,” Day said. “I could be on the wrong side. I’m smart enough to realize it.”
But Day, who’s been running for office — and mostly winning — for nearly three decades, sees the ebb and flow of party politics.
“Hey, we got a new group,” he said. “They’ll take over for a few years, and we’ll see how that goes.”
But members differ on what course to take
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