Republicans have been busy reading the tea leaves of last week’s election debacle. Disgruntled conservatives looking for evidence that they “get it” and will return to their conservative roots have reason to be encouraged.
Exit polls show that legions of conservatives cast their ballots for Democrats, a significant number of whom are centrists. But liberal and left-of-center candidates beat many conservatives, too. Senator-elect Sherrod Brown won 23% of self-described “conservative” voters in Ohio, despite his lifetime American Conservative Union rating of only 8%. Similarly, Sen.-elect Bob Casey in Pennsylvania nabbed 20% of the conservative vote.
In at least three Senate races—Missouri, Montana and Virginia—Democratic challengers attracted enough conservative support to tip the balance in their favor against Republican incumbents who mounted mostly non-ideological campaigns that failed to arouse the conservative base. Many conservatives even chose to stay home last Tuesday. The conservative share of the electorate declined slightly compared to 2004.
The full extent of the conservatives’ malaise was evident in the results of a poll by OnMessage Inc. It surveyed 100 voters in each of 12 hotly contested Republican-controlled House districts during the three days preceding the election. On the issue that supposedly sank Republicans nationwide, the war in Iraq, Republicans actually enjoyed a modest edge (36% to 32%, as the party “best able to deal with the war in Iraq”). Voters were considerably more critical of the Republicans, however, on the issues of taxes and spending.
Democrats enjoyed commanding advantages as the party best able to “cut taxes for the middle-class” (42% to 29%), “work toward reducing the deficit” (47% to 22%), and “keep government spending under control” (38% to 21%). Not surprisingly, Democrats fared well in all of these districts, winning four, with three others still undecided at press time.
Now, chastened House Republicans must elect new leaders. Early indications are that both candidates for the minority leader post—Representatives John Boehner of Ohio and Mike Pence of Indiana—see the election results as a wake-up call to get back to basics.
“Our voters stopped thinking of us as the party of principle,” Boehner wrote in a post-election letter to his colleagues. They concluded that “instead of changing Washington, Washington had changed us.” In a similar letter, Pence struck the optimistic note that “in this new time of challenge also comes opportunity.” “I believe,” he said, “that we did not just lose our majority—we lost our way.” He lamented the embrace by House Republicans of Big Government and singled out the doubling of Uncle Sam’s role in education and the enactment of the “largest new entitlement in 40 years” on the Republicans’ watch.
Boehner spoke of the need to “take some well-considered risks.” Pence argued that Republicans should seek to regain the majority “not simply to govern but to change government for the better.” Both invoked President Reagan and pledged to recapture the magic of the 1994 Republican Revolution and keep a future Republican majority focused on what really matters. To conservatives who have grown dismayed by the transactional nature of Republican governance, these are encouraging words indeed.
The only dissenting voice comes from the dramatically diminished, and apparently embittered, ranks of Republican moderates. Sarah Chamberlain Resnick of the Republican Main Street Partnership issued a telling press release on election night with the inflammatory title: “Far Right Solely Responsible for Democratic Gains. Leadership Ignored Centrist Concerns, Chose to Pursue Far Right’s Legislative Agenda.” Chamberlain’s specific complaint was Democratic campaign ads attacking Republicans for failing to raise the minimum wage, advance embryonic stem-cell research and pass a strong ethics-reform package. If Republican leaders had only listened, she argued, “we could have taken issues like this off the table” and presumably saved the dozen or so moderates who lost their seats.
“The extreme right,” Chamberlain said, “has had their turn at the wheel and the results have proven devastating for our party and our country.”
Chamberlain’s lament is misguided.
As in the contested Senate races, exit poll data demonstrate that self-identified conservatives in the Northeast who supported the Democratic House candidates comprised 6% of the electorate, while liberals who gravitated to the Republican amounted to only 1.7% of the total. That means the “my-conservatives-for-your-liberals” trade that Chamberlain implicitly endorses resulted in a net loss of 4.3% of the total electorate. For many moderate Republicans in the Northeast, this was more than their final margin of defeat and was an entirely avoidable disaster. Their response should be to, finally, take conservative voters seriously.