Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Dangers of Thralldom

Covering the upcoming Virginia State House and Senate races, the Washington Post notes the importance of the northern Virginia suburban districts to whether or not the Republicans can maintain control of the legislature. The Republican incumbents are battling against the increased blue tint of their districts, as well as an overall purpling of the state at large. One problem these candidates have faced is that even more moderate voters know that, even if these particular Republicans are talking (even walking) the centrist talk, the Republican Party as a whole is still hanging out on the right wing of things, and that's a major turn-off.

The perils of being a moderate Republican are nothing new. But in certain states, like Virginia, there is another element in play that poses a particular danger to the Republican Party. Because the state has such a strong conservative tradition, the right-most flank of the Republican Party has entrenched itself as the power-brokers. They see themselves as the rightful arbiters of the direction and position of the Party. Even as the state is purpling, it's not a position they'll give up easily, and as a result it locks the GOP into a conservative posture that is no longer electorally tenable.

The sacrificial quality of the activist-conservative branch of the Virginia GOP already demonstrated itself in local primaries, driving out incumbents who weren't seen as sufficiently devoted to the cause and putting formerly safe districts into play.
"It's scary for us," said state Sen. Martin E. Williams (R-Newport News), who lost a primary battle this year to a conservative Republican and whose seat, as a result, is at risk of turning over to Democrats. "Certainly the perception in the public's eye is that we've narrowed our base so much that we can't claim a majority. We've got to appeal to a broader group of people than just people who will sign a no-tax pledge or be pro-life."

Elsewhere in Virginia, Republican leaders have been scrambling to handle two rogue lawmakers in their caucus who are accusing the state Democrats of ties to terrorism because of their relationship with some local Muslim community organizations. It's a low political slam, and one most observers think will backfire, but also the type of attack that resonates with the die-hards. The folks who come out to vote in Republican primaries eat that stuff up, but the independent voters who are becoming more and more important in Virginia read that sort of thing and just recoil. Another example is the machinations of the state Republican Central Committee to give conservative candidate Jim Gilmore the edge in the race to succeed retiring Senator John Warner (R), over the more moderate, but far more electable Rep. Tom Davis. This isn't the best example, because the Democratic candidate, Mark Warner would likely have thrashed both, but Davis at least could have made a solid race out of it. With Gilmore as the nominee, the seat is pretty much in the bag for the Democrats.

Virginia is not the only state where this dynamic is playing out. Out in Kansas, the Republican Party has been mired in a high profile civil war that has sent moderates fleeing to the Democrats en masse. Here, too, the problem was that the state Party was controlled by forces too conservative for its own constituents, much less the state at large. The state board of education had been buffeted by an intra-party spat over whether evolution should be taught in public schools, a battle won by pro-science forces in August of 2006. Meanwhile, a series of high profile defections, capped by former state party chairman Mark Parkinson, set the stage for a banner year for Democrats. Parkinson joined the ticket of incumbent Democratic Governor Kathleen Sebelius, who cruised to re-election and positioned herself as a possible 2008 Vice Presidential contender. Fellow turncoat Paul Morrison knocked off Republican Attorney General Phill Kline, who had gained notoriety by subpoenaing medical records of abortion clinic patients, ostensibly to check for evidence of child abuse. And, in one of the top upsets of the year, Democratic nominee Nancy Boyda bested 5-term Rep. Jim Ryun.

In Arizona, Republicans had to essentially abandon the erst-while competitive 8th District last cycle because local voters bucked the national party's preferred candidate to nominate Randy Graf, who was far too conservative to have a chance in the district. Gabrielle Giffords won the race in a landslide. In Colorado in 2002, Republican Bob Beauprez won control of the 7th District by less than 400 votes. Yet, when Beauprez left the seat open to run for governor in 2006, the GOP nominated uber-conservative Rick O'Donnell, who had previously advocated abolishing social security. Democrats won the seat back by nearly 25,000 votes.

In both these states, these strategic lapses came amid general Democratic progress. In Arizona, Democrats also knocked off incumbent J.D. Hayworth in the 5th District there, and are currently eying Rick Renzi's 1st District seat as particularly vulnerable. In Colorado, Democrats have become the dominant political force, capturing the Governor's mansion, both houses of the state legislature, and a Senate seat.

In all of these states, the Republican Party is tightly under the control of its most conservative branch, a wing that simply can no longer compete in general elections, but can still prevent any internal reform to reposition the Party in a more palatable light to their changing electorate. This is a very dangerous position for the Republicans to be in. It gives Democrats free reign to take over huge swaths of the American middle with virtually no substantive opposition. And as these voters continue to trend Democratic, the remaining Republican office-holders will list evermore right-ward, pushing more people away and giving Democrats an even greater advantage.

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