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Why the GOP should still be nervous

Friday, January 22, 2010 - 12:41pm

Republicans are riding high in the wake of Scott Brown’s win, talking up an authentic resurgence for their party and a real chance for reclaiming power.

Don’t bet on it.

Yes, it is indisputable that the GOP has surged, especially in the past several months. Republicans won three major races in tough states — and watched the percentage of Americans who prefer Republicans over Democrats in hypothetical matchups rise to the highest level since 2004.

But it is also indisputable that the rise has little to do with the voters’ view of Republicans writ large — and that the very concerns that got them booted from power persist today.

Voters “have fallen out of love with the Democrats,” said Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.). “They haven’t yet fallen back in love with us.”

POLITICO talked with many of the country’s most experienced political operatives, and each one warned Republicans against irrational exuberance.

Former New York Rep. Susan Molinari: “We have earned the right to crow a little bit. But the lesson we’ve learned from all of these races is that you ... can’t take anything for granted.”

Republican strategist Mary Matalin: “Killer negatives have lost their magic. This requires no attitude. Now we have the players on the field, and we just need to play. We remember how to do it.”

Former Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn.): “Voters don’t want triumphalism. They still like the president as a person, so they don’t want to see a party celebrating his decline. ... The country wants to see the parties working together.”

Matthew Dowd, who consulted for former President George W. Bush and voted for President Barack Obama: “If any Republicans are running around town celebrating in jubilation, they should remember that in the country’s constant state of change, neither party gets more than a moment.”

Republicans on Capitol Hill hope their moment will come again in November. But the numbers are daunting across the board.

The most important ones: 40, the net seats to win the House, and 10, the net seats to win the Senate, are very difficult — perhaps impossible in the case of the Senate — to achieve. Republicans have picked up 40 or more House seats only seven times since 1912, when the chamber grew to 435 seats. They have picked up 10 or more Senate seats only four times in that period. They have done both three times in the past century.

It seems certain they will pick up some seats, perhaps as many as two dozen or more in the House. That would be in line with the historical average pickup for the opposition party in a president’s first term.

But away from the cameras, Republicans admit that a series of structural problems will make it hard to transform those gains into a win-back-control movement.

Privately, top Republicans tell POLITICO that they are most concerned right now about their bank balance. They are doing well in recruiting candidates but worry they might not have the cash to sufficiently fund them.

Consider the House. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has $15 million in the bank right now — nearly four times more than the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Officials say that, while small and large donors are still chipping in, the recession has caused a dip in contributions from middle-level donors — often the small-business types who are feeling the economic pinch.

At the candidate level, if you tally up all the money for everyone running, Democrats have about $60 million more ($175 million to $114 million), according to numbers compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Money is one of the many reasons top GOP officials wish the party had not elected Michael Steele as Republican National Committee chairman. Senior Republicans don’t like his loose lips or his wildly improvisational style. But they could live with that if the RNC were a cash cow. It is not, in part because of Steele’s unwillingness to personally stroke top donors.

The RNC has outraised the Democratic National Committee, but it has less money to spend right now: $9 million vs. the DNC’s $13 million. More troubling to GOP insiders on Capitol Hill is that some major donors say they don’t want to give money to Steele’s RNC.

Republicans are, however, taking some comfort in signals that some of these same contributors are funneling their money to the committees tasked with winning House, Senate and gubernatorial contests.

Democrats continue to get way more money than Republicans from groups outside the official party structure. The new Supreme Court ruling opens the door for corporations to rush back into politics, but it’s too early to tell how aggressively they will underwrite the GOP, given the inherent risk involved in taking on the majority party.

Barring a huge infusion of corporate cash, the Democrats have a decisive advantage. Not insurmountable, but by no means insignificant.

Republicans are publicly boasting that money will pour in after the Massachusetts win. If so, they could have enough to compete in November.

But Republicans still will fight against another set of numbers: the large number of voters who simply don’t like the brand the GOP is selling. The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found only 30 percent of those surveyed had a favorable view of Republicans. That is 8 percentage points lower than the favorability rating for Democrats. And 22 points lower than Obama’s.

“The American people are against their agenda,” Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) said of the Democrats. But Westmoreland said the Republicans are “having a hard time” getting their agenda out, too. “We have got to do a better job getting that out.”

Even Republicans aren’t thrilled with Republicans. A CBS News poll showed only 55 percent of Republicans hold a favorable view of their congressional delegation.

And voters also still don’t trust Republicans with big decisions. A recent Washington Post poll found 24 percent trusted congressional Republicans to make the right decisions for the country — 8 points fewer than Democrats and 23 points fewer than Obama.

“Scott Brown didn’t even really run as a Republican,” Dowd notes. “He ran as an outsider.”

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) spent three days in Massachusetts before the election, and he said that even Brown supporters told him they wanted to be sure “Republicans get the message: ‘You didn’t do your job well enough when you were there.’” Still, he said, “They do recognize the Democrats have been a lot worse.”

It is a fair point for Republicans to argue that what matters more is the public’s view of the party in power, because voters have a long history of taking out their frustrations on those with the keys. Indeed, one of the most troubling signs for Democrats right now is that the public is losing faith in their ability to lead on virtually every domestic issue on the table.

Republicans are gleefully proclaiming the death of the Obama presidency, or at least his agenda. They claim the public has turned on him, holding him accountable for the sour economy and unemployment. However, the polls don’t back this up.

The WSJ/NBC poll found 65 percent felt Obama inherited the economic mess, while only 17 percent said his policies were “mostly responsible” for the current situation.

That said, just ask Massachusetts Democratic Senate nominee Martha Coakley and former New Jersey Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine who’s taking the brunt of the public’s anger right now.

Of course, it’s possible that the wave of voter discontent is now cresting and will have fizzled somewhat 10 months from now. The economy could begin a rebound.

But even if the current political environment holds, the demographic numbers will remain the biggest obstacle to any longer-term gains for the GOP.

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor said last week he was very concerned about the lack of diversity among GOP candidates and their supporters. The most obvious place for gains in this area would be with Hispanics, the fastest-growing minority group. But a recent Daily Kos poll showed three-quarters of Hispanics hold unfavorable opinions of Republicans. There’s little evidence Republicans are aggressively working to fix their diversity problem: Aside from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, each of their potential 2012 presidential candidates is a white male.

Finally, one number Republicans are closely watching in the short term is the number of conservatives who will challenge establishment-backed candidates in key races. If this number grows too big, it will drain resources and highlight the deep divisions that remain inside the GOP.

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