- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 12, 2006

Voters did not reject core Republican principles of lower taxes, smaller government and family values when they put the Democrats in charge of Congress, Republican officials across the country said last week in their post-mortems on the midterm elections.

If anything, these officials told The Washington Times, Republicans blundered by abandoning or de-emphasizing signature issues that had fueled the party’s meteoric rise since the 1990s. The party must champion these issues again if it hopes to win back the voters’ trust in the 2008 presidential election, the officials said.

“In the tight races where we had candidates who articulated the core issues like low taxes, less government and strong family values, those are the candidates that prevailed in our competitive races,” Minnesota Republican Chairman Ron Carey said. “They did better than candidates that didn’t stand firm on those conservative Republican issues.”

As an example, Mr. Carey cited Republican Michele Bachmann, who ran as a staunch conservative with strong evangelical support in Minnesota’s open 6th District race, easily defeating Patty Wetterling, a liberal Democrat, 50 percent to 42 percent.

“The candidates who tried to finesse the GOP’s positions fared poorly,” Mr. Carey said. “Those who ran on core Republican issues were able to better withstand the Democratic onslaught.”

An example, some Republican strategists said, was Rep. Gil Gutknecht of Minnesota, who lost his 1st District seat to Democrat Tim Walz, a teacher and National Guard veteran, 53 percent to 47 percent.

But Republican critics strongly rejected the premise of these Republican post-mortems, saying taxes were virtually nonexistent as an election issue, as was limited government.

“The fact of the matter is that these were non-issues,” said pollster and demographic analyst David Bositis of the National Center for Political and Economic Studies.

“And how could Republicans run on smaller government? They’ve been in charge for the last five years, and government spending has exploded. They can’t claim the Democrats are responsible for that,” he said.

Mr. Carey argued that voters remain just as conservative as they were in earlier elections when Republicans won increasing majorities in Congress. But Republicans failed to sharpen the differences between themselves and Democrats, many of whom portrayed themselves as centrists despite their liberal views and voting records, other Republicans said in a survey of state party leaders by The Times.

“I think people still agree with Republicans on lowering taxes, on fiscal policy and trying to keep the government in check. I don’t buy the argument that everybody has become a liberal,” Kansas Republican Chairman Tim Shallenburger said.

He and other state party officials said they had no doubt the Iraq war and congressional scandals were the overriding issues that produced a wave of Democratic victories in more than 30 Republican congressional districts and a half-dozen Senate races.

Exit surveys of 13,208 voters by the Associated Press and the major television news networks found that more than half of the voters surveyed, 55 percent, opposed the war in Iraq and said that opposition would make them more likely to vote for Democratic House candidates.

The exit polls also showed that six in 10 rejected President Bush’s chief justification for the war: to make America more secure at home. Notably, seven out of 10 independents — a pivotal voting bloc that led to Republican losses — felt that way.

Some party chairmen said that without the Iraq war, a number of Republicans would have won.

“It would have been a completely different outcome,” Michigan Republican Chairman Saul Anuzis said. “The Iraq war was clearly one of the major reasons for Bush’s unpopularity,” which Democrats turned into a referendum on his presidency.

There was also a belief among many party officials that the war — when combined with a number of other issues, such as excessive spending and the lobbying and congressional-page scandals — produced a “critical mass” that angered and frustrated Republicans and hurt turnout among party members. Exit polls showed that nearly 30 percent of voters were “angry” with Mr. Bush.

But it was the Republican Party’s abandonment of its core principles on spending and limited government that these and other Republicans outside the Beltway said was the biggest complaint among the party’s grass roots. They blamed Republican leaders and members of Congress who, as one party chairman said, “forgot why we sent them there.”

“I heard a lot of Republicans say, ‘We gave you a chance, and you spent more money than before. Why should we send you back to Washington?’ ” Mr. Carey said.

“Some said we became the people we ran against in 1994. Whether it is true or not, that was the perception in our party. It was in the minds of many voters Tuesday,” he said. “We need to get back to our basic core principles and talk about the issues that draw a sharp distinction between Republicans and Democrats.”

These complaints after the election were picked up by some Republican presidential hopefuls, including Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who saw them as an opportunity to make the party strong again.

“Americans have not become less conservative, but they believe some Republicans have. As a party, we need to remember who we are and the principles that have always led our party and our country to success,” Mr. Romney said last week.

“We must return to the common-sense Reagan Republican ideals of fighting for hard-working Americans, lowering taxes, shrinking government, curbing out-of-control spending,” he said.

Mr. McCain called for a return to the conservative principles he said make up the foundations of the Republican Party.

“We came to Washington to change government, and government changed us,” he said. “We departed rather tragically from our conservative principles.”

Though Democratic leaders repeatedly denounced Mr. Bush’s across-the-board tax cuts as “tax cuts for the wealthy,” polls showed that most Americans sided with Mr. Bush and the Republicans on this core issue. A Gallup poll late last month showed that 74 percent were against Democratic proposals to raise federal income taxes.

Though Mr. Bush and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, who is in line to become the next House speaker, have buried the hatchet for now, some Republicans question whether party members can or even should compromise with Democrats on taxes and spending.

“I think there is going to be a split in Republican circles between the faction that says let’s compromise and try to get along and another faction that says we need to get back to our core principles and beliefs,” Mr. Carey said.

Republicans are not the only ones who are divided over postelection strategies. The elections also have reopened old ideological divisions between the Democratic Party’s liberal and centrist wings. Centrists fear the middle-of-the-road voters who returned them to power will be turned off if the party’s left wing designs the legislative agenda for next year.

“This is a victory for the vital center of American politics over the extremes,” said Al From, the founder of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), “and, while Democrats benefited from an energized party base, the key to the victory was in the contested center of the electorate, among moderates.”

Mr. From said his point “was underscored by [Sen.] Joe Lieberman’s re-election victory in Connecticut.”

Mr. Lieberman, a hero among DLC members, was defeated in the primary by the party’s liberal, anti-war activists because of his support for the Iraq war. He won re-election Tuesday as an independent, largely with Republican votes.

Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, a potential presidential candidate and a DLC leader, similarly warned his party last week in an interview with USA Today that “if we serve up a highly partisan, ideologically extreme, Democratic version of what they just voted against, we’re not going to do very well.”

But that view was flatly rejected by party liberals who oppose the DLC’s centrist approach on domestic and national-security policy issues.

“If Democrats had campaigned like Lieberman on the war, they might have won in Connecticut, but they would have lost in most places,” said Roger Hickey, co-director of the liberal Campaign for America’s Future. “This election was a referendum on the war, and the Democrats were smart to reject the DLC position on the war.”

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