There was a point not long after the 2006 midterm elections when observers began to note that Republicans were in truly terrible shape, that a staggering number of Senate and House Republicans were acutely vulnerable in their re-elections, and that in all likelihood, if the GOP failed to reconnect with voters, they would suffer even more substantial losses in 2008.
Republicans are in even weaker shape now. The party is contracting in size as it self-marginalizes; the number of voters who identify themselves as Republican is at its lowest point in decades, and nearly every poll shows a dramatic divergence of opinion between self-identifying Republicans and self-identifying Independents. The fight for the "middle voter" has been fought and won by the Democrats, who are consistently viewed as more capable on substantive policy issues than Republicans. A recent Gallup poll showed that 71 percent of voters trust Obama on the economy. That number is built on a strong coalition of Democratic and Independent voters. 97 percent of Democrats and 68 percent of Independents expressed confidence in Obama's handling of the economy, compared to only 38 percent of Republicans. On an issue as critically important to voters as the economy, a 30 point divide in viewpoints between Republicans and Independents spells serious trouble going forward.
If the GOP has any hope of being competitive in the 2010 midterms, it had better figure out a way to appeal to Independents again. But if Republicans had any intention of reconnecting with those voters, this week's headlines don't give any indication.
During the much-panned Republican "tea party" protests, aimed at high taxes (and also wasteful spending and also socialism and also Obama's secret Muslim roots and also his fake birth certificate and also a few other things one might write on a poster board), Texas Governor Rick Perry threatened to secede. Tom Delay defended him - and secession. So did Rush Limbaugh. Republicans touted the protests as an impressive showing of conservative online organizing. But their success in numbers belies a serious problem.
Republicans are right to recognize how critical their capacity to organize will be toward their future electoral success. But as the Republican base gets smaller, and more ideological, organizing the base may very well mean alienating a critical group of voters - just about everyone else. Still Republican politicians are no less dependent on their base for money and volunteers, which may explain the recent propensity of national Republicans to read conspiracy-driven paranoia into the Congressional Record. The complication, of course, is that Republicans who are unable to depend on the GOP base will never build an organization capable of winning elections. But those who do depend on that base will be constrained by a policy agenda well outside the mainstream.
In Pennsylvania, the conflict between base voters and moderates might help guarantee the Democratic pickup of a 60th Senate seat. Senator Arlen Specter, a moderate Republican who has a long history with Pennsylvania voters , would be tough for a Democrat to defeat in a general election. But Specter may never get that far. He's being challenged from his right in the Republican Primary by Pat Toomey, who currently leads him by 14 points. Toomey, however, is far too conservative for Pennsylvania voters, and will almost certainly lose a race to a Democrat that Specter may have won.
In every way imaginable, the party so famous for using political wedges has spent the three months since Obama's inauguration driving one of the most politically consequential wedges between themselves and Independents. If Republicans do manage to regroup and recalibrate before 2010, if they are able to prevent further losses 19 months from now, the story will no doubt be that they adopted a strategy that could appeal to Independents, as well as conservatives.
Yet if they continue, as they have continued, to mobilize the most unsavory of the right, to speak to their issues and theirs alone, despite facts and evidence, despite polls and focus groups, despite reason and strategy, they will surely reach a point of no return and soon, a point beyond which success in the midterms will be impossible.
Already critical decisions are being made about 2010. The NRCC and NRSC are recruiting Republican candidates, studying the map, making decisions about which seats they'll need to defend as well as which Democrats they might unseat. These decisions are being made based on the framework of this current strategy and the expectation that it will continue. Sitting Members of Congress have already been forced into votes that are popular with their bases, but quite unpopular elsewhere. The far right might be proud, for example, of unanimous Republican opposition to the stimulus bill in the House. But Independent voters will no doubt wonder why Republicans voted against the biggest middle class tax cut in history, and why they continue to aggressively oppose economic policies that Independents largely support.
Without an immediate about-face, it's hard to imagine what the GOP could actually do to stop the hemorrhaging. Every day Republicans are taking public positions that will haunt them next November. As is so often the case with campaigns, these early decisions are among the most important, and they are being made at a time when the party lacks direction or purpose or message, and at a time when the incompetence of those in charge means a change in strategy is unlikely. Even at this early juncture, more than a year and half before the midterms, the Republican party has gone all-in. When panicked GOP operatives finally start looking for that point of no return coming up ahead, they better take a deep breath, then look directly behind them.