On the day after, Republicans ask what went wrong

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 7, 2012 

— They couldn’t defeat a president with high unemployment and soaring debt. They couldn’t capture a Senate they thought was theirs for the taking. Now, Republicans are asking what went wrong and where the party goes next.

Keeping control of the House of Representatives offered little solace for Republicans. President Barack Obama’s surprisingly large electoral victory, Republican challenger Mitt Romney’s inability to turn enough significant swing states Republican red, and Democrats not only keeping control of the Senate but padding their margin by two seats, prompted a day of reflection and a search for a solution.

“Republicans were decimated last night,” said Craig Robinson, former political director of the Iowa Republican Party. “You look at the presidential race and congressional map and you say, ‘My God, this is horrible.’ I tweeted last night that the biggest problem isn’t President Obama. It’s ourselves.”

The range of political responses suggests that Republicans are facing a period of reckoning over what their party is, what it believes, what it supports and how to appeal to a diverse electorate. It starts out similar to the soul searching the Democrats went through in the late 1980s, a struggle between the center and the left that ended with the ascendance of centrists such as Bill Clinton.

“Some people are talking about civil war, but I don’t think it will happen in reality,” said Bill Dal Col, a Republican strategist who ran publisher Steve Forbes’ 1996 presidential campaign. “There won’t be a jihad within the party. There will be a coalescing.”

Some of the party’s more conservative elements weren’t in a coalescing mood Wednesday as they stood with somber faces and spoke in dire tones as they addressed reporters at Washington’s National Press Club. They placed much of the blame for Tuesday night’s results on Romney.

The former Massachusetts governor was a faux conservative, they said, whose attempted move to the political center late in the campaign veered the party off the road to victory. They blamed the party leadership for letting it happen.

“What we got was a weak moderate candidate, handpicked by the Beltway elites and country club establishment wing of the Republican Party,” said Jenny Beth Martin, national coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots. “The presidential loss is unequivocally on them.”

Conservative writer and strategist Brent Bozell reeled off a proposed conservative manifesto designed to hold the Republican Party’s feet to the fire. Among other things, he demanded that Republicans refuse “to participate in any lame-duck session that furthers the leftist Democratic agenda; that they defund Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act; and end federal funding for Planned Parenthood and PBS.”

“It’s time for conservatives to say ‘Enough,’” he said. “It is time for conservatives to withhold any further support, financial and otherwise, to the Republican Party unless and until the GOP re-earns our trust.”

Others in the party suggested that shifting further to the right isn’t a winning solution. Dal Col and Robinson believe that Republicans must articulate a crystal-clear vision on the economy, move to excite voters beyond their political base, and work harder at delivering a message and agenda that appeals to more women.

Several Republicans and many political analysts believe that the party lost gettable Senate seats from Indiana and Missouri because of language on abortion and rape from the Republican candidates in those races.

Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who was considered among the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents in the Senate, defeated Republican Rep. Todd Akin, who spurred controversy this summer when he said that women rarely got pregnant in the case of “legitimate rape.”

In Indiana, Republicans put a safe seat in jeopardy by ousting longtime Sen. Richard Lugar in a primary and nominating tea party favorite Richard Mourdock. Mourdock was neck and neck with the Democrat for the fall election, then fell behind when he defended his opposition to abortion in cases of rape because he believed that life created even in rape was an act of God. He lost.

“This has to be more about how we appeal to the American people, not how we appeal to the party base,” Robinson said. “The agenda will have to help up us reconnect with the American people.”

One thing all factions within the Republican Party seem to agree on is the need to reach Hispanics. Obama captured 71 percent of the Latino vote to Romney’s 27 percent. Ironically, Romney warned in a secretly recorded video shot at a Boca Raton fundraiser that Republicans have to do something to get Hispanics into the party fold.

“We’re having a much harder time with Hispanic voters,” Romney said in the video, which was released by Mother Jones magazine. “And if the Hispanic voting bloc becomes as committed to the Democrats as the African-American voting bloc has in the past, well, we’re in trouble as a party and, I think, as a nation.”

A Republican outreach effort could include a serious bipartisan effort to pass comprehensive immigration legislation, something that Republicans helped scuttle during George W. Bush’s presidency and balked at under Obama.

“It’s kind of a threshold issue,” said Jeffrey Bell, a conservative consultant and author. “It isn’t the only thing that Hispanic voters care about, but if they think the Republican Party is not welcoming towards them, it’s hard to get their attention on anything else.”

However, Robinson believes that Republicans, in their post-election blues, aren’t ready to deal with the immigration issue.

“We’ve got to get ourselves straight first,” he said.

Email: wdouglas@mcclatchydc.com; twitter @williamdouglas

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