- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 3, 2008

SHREWSBURY, Pa. | Republican voters increasingly say they have lost faith in the party and might not vote this year, compounding headaches for party leaders struggling to avert a November massacre at the polls.

“The Republican Party doesn’t represent me anymore,” longtime Republican voter Joseph E. Ayers, 57, said recently while grabbing lunch at an Amish market in this rural hamlet.

Mr. Ayers, an investment consultant, said he was disgusted with President Bush and Republicans in Congress for allowing massive government growth, runaway federal spending, escalating energy prices and a costly nation-building mission in Iraq.

“We were betrayed by Bush in a lot of ways,” he said, adding that presumptive Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain of Arizona lacks the conservative mettle needed to repair the damage.

“I won’t vote for McCain,” he said. “I might not even vote at all. That’s the way it looks now.”

Low Republican turnout contributed to May’s Democratic upset victory in a congressional special election in southern Mississippi, a once-safe Republican district that President Bush carried by a 25-point margin in 2004.

The defeat - which followed special-election loses for Republicans in previous strongholds in districts in Illinois and Louisiana - stung party leaders on Capitol Hill just as they introduced a refurbished conservative agenda for members to tout during the Memorial Day recess.

The new agenda, which included energy policy and measures to aid families and working mothers, is part of a retooled Republican campaign message that promises to deliver “the change Americans deserve.”

“It is a clear sign Republicans have not yet come to grips with how big a hole they have dug for themselves and how much work it will take to get out,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who spearheaded the 1994 Republican win of the majority in Congress that ended four decades of Democratic control.

He said the party was down but not out. He credited Republican leaders with embracing policies that resonate with voters, especially by tackling energy prices with calls for more domestic oil production.

“The question is, are they prepared to break decisively with the past?” Mr. Gingrich said.

At least 40 Republican-held House seats are vulnerable in November and the party’s Senate seats are at risk in the one-time strongholds of Alaska, Colorado, Kentucky, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Texas and Virginia.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, stopped short of predicting a new era of Democratic pre-eminence in Washington, but he said he was confident the party would reap gains in the election, which would be the first time since 1976 that a party picked up seats in the election following a wave of election gains.

“I do believe we are in a position to beat history,” said Mr. Van Hollen, adding that the five months to November is a long time in politics and anything could happen by Election Day.

“Republican candidates are running in the face of a strong headwind created by Bush’s failed policies,” he said. “It is not going to be enough for them to come up with a new slogan.”

Recent polls by Rasmussen Reports showed fewer Americans identify themselves as Republicans and voters favor Democratic candidates 47 percent to 39 percent on a generic congressional ballot.

A Rasmussen survey in May showed voters trust Democrats on all key election issues, including national security and the war on terrorism - terrain once dominated by Republicans.

“I don’t think they’ve done the things they claimed they were going to do,” said James H. Evans, 80, a retired U.S. Marine Corps gunnery sergeant from Dover, Del. “I think they got so wrapped up in the war overseas that they forgot about the citizens here.”

The registered Republican said he might not show up at the polls in November. He predicted likely Democrat presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama would win the White House and did not express an objection to that outcome.

“The Republican Party has to do something to change the way things are going up there,” he said.

Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said voter disenchantment is not confined to the Republican Party and reflects widespread angst about rising gasoline prices, economic uncertainty, the prospect of higher taxes and the war in Iraq.

“Our effort is to reach out and [assure] them that we are fighting these things,” he said. “But there is clearly a big fight ahead of us in the election. … You get up and confront that challenge by fighting each and every day for the things you believe in.”

Mr. Cole said Republican voters will energize as campaigns draw stark distinctions with Democrats, who he said are set to raise taxes and surrender in Iraq.

“The stakes in the election are enormously high,” he said. “I think people have to wake up and realize what the consequences of not participating are.”

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