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Republican fatigue could hurt the party's chances in November

GOLDEN, Colo.—Brian Wareing has been a Republican all his life. But ask him how his party has done running the federal government and his complaints pile up: Immigration. Spending. Trade. He's had enough.

He won't vote for a Democrat in November's congressional elections. But he might vote for a third-party candidate—or he might not vote at all. "At this point, I couldn't vote for the Republican," the house painter from this Denver suburb said, with regret.

Across the country this spring, many Republicans alternate between anger and ambivalence five years after their party seized power over the federal government and seven months before a pivotal election for control of Congress.

If enough disgruntled Republicans sit out the midterm elections—when voter turnout typically is low and victory goes to the party whose base is most passionate—Republican incumbents could lose in close contests such as the one in Golden.

Democrats need to gain only 15 of 435 seats to take control of the U.S. House of Representatives, and six of the 33 that are up this year to take the 100-member Senate. And if they win either house of Congress, President Bush will become the lamest of lame ducks for his final two years in power.

National trends suggest that's possible. Solid majorities of adults disapprove of Bush, the war in Iraq, the leadership of Congress and the direction of the country, according to a series of polls. Increasingly, the national mood seems to mirror 1994, when voters turned sour on President Clinton, rejected Democratic lawmakers and installed a Republican majority in Congress for the first time in 40 years.

Since Bush's second term started, his approval rating has dropped 16 percentage points among Republicans, 23 points among supporters of the Iraq war and 24 points among those who voted for him in 2004, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.

The one shred of good news for the Republican Party now: Not many House and Senate contests appear all that competitive yet. Disillusionment with Bush and Iraq don't yet trump voters' local concerns in many states. And the threat of a Democratic Congress still could rally the Republican base.

But it's clear from dozens of interviews in key battlegrounds that Republican voters today lack the passion they brought to the 2002 midterm elections. And that gives Democrats an opportunity.

At a recent breakfast in Golden, one Republican after another put voices behind those numbers, complaining about Washington policies from the war in Iraq and the failure to stop illegal immigration to runaway federal spending. The cumulative effect led several to question whether they or like-minded party loyalists would vote next fall.

"I've been a Republican since I started voting," said John Burdan, a retired Air Force officer from Jefferson County, outside Denver. "Things are going terrible. I won't vote for a Democrat. But I might not vote for the Republican."

"Doesn't Bush know that Republicans are watching?" asked Jefferson County Commissioner Jim Congrove. "We're setting ourselves up for big defeats."

Golden is in Colorado's 7th Congressional District, where Republican Rep. Bob Beauprez is stepping aside to run for governor. When he won the open seat four years ago, it was the closest race in the country. Today Republican Rick O'Donnell faces the same evenly divided district, but with a much more hostile Republican base.

"The frustration I hear is that we have a Republican president and a Republican Congress, how come we can't reduce spending and how come we don't have secure borders," O'Donnell said.

He reminds them of Republican successes, such as the appointment of two Supreme Court justices. Still, he said, "so many Republicans at the base are frustrated. ... I'm spending more time on it than I otherwise would have. The troops are a little depressed."

"There's some fatigue among the average Republican," Denver Republican consultant Katy Atkinson said. "They're tired of it all. They're tired of scandals. They're tired of the White House. They're ready for change."

Said independent Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli: "The party is in trouble here. For their turnout machine to work, it has to have a popular president with key issues. I don't think they have that now."

For all that, Democratic efforts to make the elections a national referendum on Bush and the Republican Congress haven't taken hold. Local issues and personalities still dominate in most parts of the country. In some places, such as Connecticut, that helps Republicans. In others, such as Ohio, it hurts them.

Almost everywhere, it's easy to find Republicans who once were inspired by Bush and the Republican Congress and now seem dispirited.

In Florida, for example, a lukewarm attitude is pervasive in the Palm Beach district where Republican Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr., a 13-term veteran, faces a tough re-election.

"There are a lot of problems out there," said Republican David Boyer, a hotel employee from Hollywood, Fla. "Can a Republican do it? I doubt it. Can a Democrat do it? I doubt it. Who's to know who's right?"

In Connecticut, some Republicans fear that their party could be hurt by growing opposition to Bush and the Iraq war.

"We've seen some apathy in the Republican ranks," said John Crooks, a Republican alderman from Norwich. "It tends to slow down the Republican turnout."

"If the president is doing really well, I'll do better; if he's not doing really well, I'll do worse," said Rep. Christopher Shays, a nine-term incumbent Republican.

Shays worries that the mood might be similar to 1994, when voters felt they had to send a "wakeup call" to Clinton. "We're on the same path right now," he said.

Yet Connecticut Republicans such as Shays and Rep. Rob Simmons benefit from local issues, such as their success at keeping Groton's submarine base open, the popularity of Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell, and the lawmakers' reputations for independence from the party's national leadership.

"I don't really understand George Bush," said Anthony Savas, a Republican and tugboat operator out of Norwalk, Conn., who opposes the Iraq war.

What about Shays? "He's not 100 percent Republican," Savas said. "He uses common sense in making his own decisions."

Outside Philadelphia, Republican voters are split over Bush, the war and how they'll vote next fall. They live in a district in which Republican Rep. Jim Gerlach is looking for a third term after two 51-49 percent wins, and a state in which polls show Republican Sen. Rick Santorum trailing in his race for re-election.

"We have hurt ourselves greatly," said Warren Moser, a retired executive from Chester County who opposes the Iraq war. "But this is one Republican who is still behind the president."

For Ken Enochs, a real estate broker from Norristown, Pa., anger over the war fuels his defection from the Republican Party. "It's about what is right," he said. "That goes across party lines."

In Ohio, anger at scandal-plagued Republican Gov. Bob Taft outweighs feelings about Bush or the national party.

"Taft has hurt Republicans," said Brian Kane, an optometrist and the president of the Painesville Rotary Club.

"He's really blown it," agreed Lou Falk, a retiree from Painesville, east of Cleveland. "There's been all kinds of scandals. It's going to have a ripple effect."

Just below the surface, many Ohio Republicans are as down on Sen. Mike DeWine, a Republican facing re-election, as Republican voters elsewhere are on Bush.

"I'm kind of neutral on both DeWine and (Republican Sen. George) Voinovich," said Richard Kretschman, an insurance agent from Concord Township, east of Cleveland. "He doesn't seem to stand out in my mind. I don't have anything negative to say about him. I just don't feel very positive."

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(Thomma reported from Colorado; Kuhnhenn from Connecticut. Knight Ridder correspondents Ron Hutcheson in Ohio, Beth Reinhard in Florida and Nancy Petersen in Pennsylvania contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060323 ELECTION midterm

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