WASHINGTON—Republicans lost more than an election Tuesday. They lost their chance to extend the conservative Republican majority that's dominated American politics since Ronald Reagan seized the presidency in 1980.
They may be able to get it back. Or they may be falling victim to one of the decisive shifts in the political landscape that occur about once a generation, when a new coalition consolidates around one party to dominate politics for decades.
It happened in the presidential elections in 1800, 1828, 1860, 1896, 1932 and arguably in 1968—only to be interrupted by the Watergate scandal, then rebuilt and expanded in 1980. It hasn't happened since, but the preceding midterm congressional elections often signaled the shift. Will such a new coalition emerge in 2008?
Democrats hope that this week's elections signal that the American electorate is up for grabs again as it hasn't been in decades because the long-dominant Republican coalition has fractured.
Pivotal blocs of swing voters—including independents, Hispanics and Roman Catholics—moved away from Republicans this year. Even parts of their once-loyal base, such as evangelical Christians, suddenly were open to voting for Democrats.
It's not that America has shifted to a liberal Democratic course. Many of the Democratic gains came with conservative or centrist candidates, such as anti-abortion-rights, pro-gun-rights Democrat Bob Casey Jr., who won Pennsylvania's Senate race. Also, seven of eight states approved amendments banning gay marriage.
In an Election Day survey, Democratic pollster Douglas Schoen found that 53 percent of voters said the Republicans didn't share their values, and 47 percent said the Democrats didn't share theirs. "There's a strong sense that the two parties are out of touch with the mainstream," Schoen said.
Thus the country enters the next two years with no dominant ideological or partisan consensus, unable or unwilling to coalesce into a solid majority behind either party. How voters align for the next era could hinge first on how Democrats govern in Congress, and then on the 2008 presidential election.
Given the rapid changes under way in American society—where party loyalty is a quaint notion for many, and large blocs such as independents and Hispanics swing back and forth from Republican to Democratic—it's unlikely that either major party can build a durable majority simply with partisan appeals to its base supporters, as both have tried to do in the past.
"We're in a period of great foment," said John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron. "There are so many elements of the electorate in play. The demographic structure is changing rapidly. We're seeing regional migrations; we can't build exurbia fast enough. Also, the globalization of the economy is by no means over. An awful lot is going on socially and economically."
The result is a shifting political landscape that's ripe for what Green called "attempts at coalitions that might not last longer than one election."
Or temporary coalitions built issue by issue.
One such coalition could be built around comprehensive immigration restructuring, for example, which was supported by President Bush, moderate Republicans in the Senate and Democrats, but blocked by Republicans in the House of Representatives.
The president wanted to keep building Republican support among Hispanics, the fastest growing part of the population. Hispanic support for Republicans increased from 31 percent for Bush in 2000 to 37 percent in the 2002 midterm elections to 44 percent for the president in 2004.
Yet House Republicans, appealing to a conservative base that refused to support any plan that let illegal immigrants remain in the United States, blocked comprehensive immigration revisions despite being criticized as anti-Hispanic.
Hispanic support for Republicans plummeted Tuesday, to 26 percent.
Hispanic immigration helped break the Republican grip on the fast-growing Southwest and Mountain West region, as Democrats gained offices in Arizona and Colorado.
Indeed, the way Republicans governed the last six years—catering to their base for short-term, narrow victories in 2002 and 2004—probably cost them the chance to build a broader and more durable majority that might have weathered this year's anger at the Iraq war and scandals in Congress.
First they lost support from Hispanics. Second, they lost ground among Catholics and evangelical Christians.
Once dependably Democratic, Catholics were lured away by Reagan in the 1980s and have leaned Republican ever since. Two years ago, Catholics voted for Bush over their fellow Catholic John Kerry by 50-47 percent.
This year they supported Democrats by 55-44 percent.
In the pivotal state of Ohio, Catholics went for Democrat Sherrod Brown by 54-46 percent over fellow Catholic Mike DeWine, the Republican senator who was defeated.
"This could mark a change in alignment in which religious divisions might work well for Democrats," Green said.
The Republican share of the white evangelical Christian vote dropped from 80 percent in 2000 to 70 percent this year.
As they drove away parts of their coalition, Republicans also governed Congress in a partisan way that turned off independents and moderates. They shut out Democrats from negotiating legislation, all but closed down bipartisan ethics monitoring and refused even to inform the Democrat on the board that oversees the House page program of suspected problems involving former Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla.
Independents went for Democrats this year by 57-39 percent, after dividing almost evenly between the major parties since the mid-1990s. Moderates went for Democrats by 60-38 percent.
"There are a bunch of people in the center who aren't satisfied with the way everything became so polarized," said Holly Brasher, a political scientist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
"People may be growing more conscious of the need to balance the right with the left. People do think consciously of that; it's not an accident."
Leading Democrats appear conscious of the pitfalls of trying to move the pendulum too far to the left, but the party's liberal base wants exactly that.
Pro-impeachment forces plan a rally in Philadelphia to pressure the Democrats to throw Bush out of office. As many as 60 congressional Democrats planned to meet next week to discuss a timetable for withdrawing from Iraq with George McGovern, whose 1972 Democratic presidential campaign defined antiwar activism.
But Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., a liberal who's expected to be the next speaker of the House, has signaled that she wants the new Democratic House to avoid partisan ideological battles on issues such as impeachment or forcing a quick withdrawal from Iraq.
Al From, the president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, agrees that the path to building a Democratic majority lies in not repeating Republican mistakes.
"In pursuing the Bush-Rove formula over the last six years, Republicans have deliberately abandoned the political center and invited Democrats to occupy it," From said.
"While Democrats benefited from an energized party base, the key to the victory was . . . among moderates, middle-class voters and suburbanites. These voters could represent an expanded Democratic base and an enduring progressive majority—if Democrats use their new power wisely."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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