Specter's switch underscores the GOP's weakness

Sen. Arlen Specter has become a Democrat.
Sen. Arlen Specter has become a Democrat. Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT

WASHINGTON — Just over four years ago, a triumphant Republican Party re-elected a president, controlled both houses of Congress and reveled in its prospects for the future.

That was then. Now, as Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania switches to become a Democrat, the Republican Party is in shambles.

It doesn't have a single member of the House of Representatives from New England. It's losing ground in the Mountain West. It's fighting to defend its base in the South.

With Specter's defection, it's all but lost the ability to filibuster legislation in the Senate — it will lose it if Democrat Al Franken is seated from Minnesota, as expected — and with it the power to command attention or influence the national agenda.

It is, for the moment at least, what former Georgia Gov. and Sen. Zell Miller said so derisively of his fellow Democrats just a few years back: a national party no more.

"Anyone who tells you the Republican Party is on its way back is smoking grass," said GOP strategist Frank Luntz. "For the party to win, it has to have a broad base. They've lost the broad base."

Republicans are losing ground in a fast-changing America where women, minorities and the young make up bigger and bigger slices of the electorate, and they all tend to vote Democratic.

"The changing demography is not on the side of the Republican Party," said Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway. "Republicans seem to be waiting for the single to get married and the young to get old."

One reason why Democrats made inroads into the Republican South in last year's presidential election by taking Virginia and North Carolina is the rapid growth of the Hispanic vote there, she said.

Another problem is the Asian-American vote, which went solidly Republican a generation ago but went 2-1 for Barack Obama in 2008.

It wasn't just the choice between Obama and Republican John McCain — the Republican brand itself is suffering.

After the 2001 terrorist attacks, the ranks of Americans who identified with the Republican Party pulled even with those calling themselves Democrats. It was a rare moment of political parity for a Republican Party that's historically trailed the Democrats since Franklin D. Roosevelt built the modern Democratic coalition in the 1930s.

Disenchantment among Republicans over high spending in Bush's second term drove many away. While the number of voters calling themselves Democrats remained stable at about 33 percent, the number calling themselves Republicans dropped sharply, to 22 percent in a recent survey by the independent Pew Research Center.

Also, if governing put pressure on the party to maintain a majority in Congress for the first six years that George W. Bush was president, the GOP's losses of Congress in 2006 and the White House in 2008 have increased the natural tendency of factions to blame one another.

For Republicans, that's meant an active conservative base working to purge the party of people such as Specter, who often break ranks, even if purging them means the party slips further from power. They call Specter-style centrists RINOs, or Republicans in Name Only.

Specter noted that 200,000 Republicans left his state's party last year to become Democrats, leaving a smaller state party that's more dominated by conservatives and more likely to reject him in next year's primary.

"Don't let the door hit you on the way out," said conservative columnist Michelle Malkin.

Yet it's unlikely that the Republican Party can fight its way back to power with conservatives alone. Specter's switch reduces their ranks to 40 in the Senate, assuming that Franken is awarded Minnesota's vacant seat, as one state court already has ruled. That decision is next before the state Supreme Court.

Forty votes isn't enough to tie up the Senate and block the Democrats' agenda with filibusters. Republicans need at least 41 votes to do that.

"The GOP desperately needed the next 18 months to put forward a vision that wasn't based on the Bush presidency. And they need the Senate as their staging ground," Luntz said.

"With 41 votes, they had the ability to hold up some legislation and be relevant, to put forward an alternative point of view and force the media to pay attention. At 40 votes, they've lost that platform. They cease to be relevant."

At least for now.

The last time the Republicans slipped to 40 or fewer seats in the Senate was after the 1976 election, when Democrat Jimmy Carter took the White House and the Democrats trounced the Republicans in the first election after the Watergate scandal.

Four years later? Republican Ronald Reagan took the White House, his party took the Senate, and a conservative revolution reshaped American politics.


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