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Sun, Jan. 19

Column: Losing Specter not funny for GOP

As the Miner's resident political junkie, I was surprised to hear the news of Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter's defection to the Democratic Party earlier this week. What surprised me even more, however, were the Republican reactions to their former comrade's switching teams.

Most of the Republican commentary I read online at various political news clearinghouses shared the same message of relief at finally purging a shameless opportunist and RINO (Republican In Name Only) out of the party, with choice quotes including "Good riddance to bad rubbish," "Don't let the door hit you on the way out," and even "Take McCain with you, take McCain and his daughter." That last quote was featured on Rush Limbaugh's radio program as an example of what "people" were e-mailing him in the aftermath of Specter's announcement.

I'm bothered by these reactions, not because I particularly like the Republican Party's current stance on any of a myriad of different issues, but because I don't like the idea of any one political party having too much control in this country. I think it hampers the (small-d) democratic process and keeps the minority party from helping to forge good policy by moderating more extreme legislation proposed by the party in power.

With Specter's defection, we now face a situation where the Democratic Party controls 59 seats in the Senate; and with Al Franken's seat all but assured after a tri-partisan court declared him the winner in Minnesota's contested Senate election, it now appears almost certain that Democrats will have supermajorities in both houses of Congress, allowing them to essentially steamroll any Republican legislative opposition by voting to close debate and force a vote.

This strikes me as something that should cause deep concern among Republicans, and yet, their reactions suggest they're pleased at this turn of events, since they've managed to force yet another moderate out of an increasingly orthodox conservative party. In fact, since the congressional rout of 2006, it seems as if the party has become dead set on flushing out anyone it deems "not conservative enough," which includes anyone who fails to toe the party line on abortion rights, tax cuts, gay marriage, border security, gun control and so on.

What we saw in 2006 and 2008, and what Specter acknowledged on Tuesday, is that the Republican funding apparatus has thrown large amounts of money at more conservative primary challengers in an attempt to defeat moderate Republican incumbents in increasingly blue-leaning states. It happened with Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chaffee and Michigan Rep. Joe Schwarz in 2006, and looked poised to happen to Specter himself in 2010, with an increasingly-conservative Pennsylvania Republican Party favoring his opponent, former Club for Growth president and anti-tax advocate Pat Toomey, by a wide margin in recent polling. Even the Republican Party's standard-bearer in the last election, our own Sen. John McCain, now faces a primary challenge on his right from Chris Simcox, the founder of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps and a fierce opponent of illegal immigration.

The problem with challenging these moderate Republicans, at least in blue states, is that more likely than not, they tend to lose once they're forced to run against Democratic opposition in the general election, either because the incumbent has no money left to fund a decent campaign, or because the successful challenger is simply too right-wing to appeal to his state's independent voters.

That's why neither Chaffee nor Schwarz are still in Congress, and it's also why the voters of Pennsylvania will almost certainly favor the moderate Republican-turned-Democrat Specter over Toomey in 2010, should Specter run unopposed.

By focusing on party orthodoxy over simple numbers, Republicans are putting themselves in the position of being relegated to a regional party rather than a national one. It might be another story if, say, 50 percent of the American electorate, the mythical "silent majority," identified as conservative Republicans - but they don't. In fact, a recent Washington Post poll indicated that only 20 percent of Americans still call themselves Republicans, and of that, only 13 percent feel strongly about it.

Those numbers are some of the lowest in history, and they're dismal for a party trying to remain relevant at the national level, particularly when the opposition party and its president are enjoying substantially higher public approval ratings - particularly the latter, whose approval reached 64 percent in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll published Wednesday morning.

Republicans I've spoken to tend to dismiss these polls as outliers; but it's hard not to acknowledge the demographic shifts that are occurring in this country, and how the Republicans only stand to lose ground as a result. Like it or not, America's youth have not bought into the Republicans' social agenda, particularly the part that favors constitutionally banning gay marriage, and as the party grows ever-more strident against illegal immigration, it also threatens to lose the votes of what is now America's largest minority for perhaps a generation or more.

The end result, I fear, is a party that caters strictly to the votes of rural, white Protestants. The question Republicans have to ask themselves is, how many seats can you continue to hold in Congress if those are the only votes you get? With Specter's defection, that answer already appears to be "not enough to hold even the smallest sliver of political leverage," and unless President Obama proves to be the biggest failure in this nation's history - not an easy task considering the competition - the GOP may consider taking a cue from the Republican National Committee's recent suggestion that the Democrats rename themselves "the Democrat Socialist Party," and change their own name to "the Neo-Whigs."

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