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Specter's party switch The GOP's shrinking base

By Hastings Wyman
Southern Political Report

April 29, 2009 US Sen. Arlen Specter’s switch from (R) to (D) yesterday illustrates a major problem facing the Republican Party. Without the extra votes on Election Day provided by moderate Republicans and independents, the GOP is returning to its old minority status that lasted from 1932, when Franklin Roosevelt was elected until -- arguably -- 1994, when the GOP won control of the US House of Representatives.

Specter was not a loyal carrier of water for his party. He voted for President Obama’s economic stimulus package and on social issues, his rating in 2006 was 56% liberal. Nevertheless, his membership in the GOP caucus has been of immense importance because it kept the Democratic majority from the 60 votes necessary to defeat a filibuster. With Specter’s switch they have 59, and if the courts finally confirm comedian Al Franken’s (D) victory in Minnesota -- as is likely -- they will have the 60.

Perhaps more important, Specter’s presence in the party was also a help to the GOP in reaching voters who do not identify as consistent conservatives. While conservatives form a solid majority of Republicans and an even larger one of party activists, they are not a majority of US voters. In the past, the GOP made up for this by winning substantial support from many moderates who identified with the Grand Old Party and shared the long tradition from Dwight Eisenhower to Nelson Rockefeller to Specter. But as the Republican Party has moved more to the right, Specter’s role in the party, along with that of US Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and a handful of others, began to shrink dramatically, leading to a decimation of Republican officeholders in the Northeast and the West Coast, a gap not filled by gains in the South and the Mountain West.

Much of the dissatisfaction of the centrist voters with Republicans has to do with social issues, from abortion to immigration to gay rights. In each case, the GOP’s rightward stance has alienated voters previously in the Republican camp who are now moving toward the Democrats.

Consider three voting groups: Women, Latinos and gays.

In 2004, John Kerry got 51% of the votes of women; in 2008, Barack Obama’s share of women voters was 56%. While the reasons why are more complicated than a few feminist issues, Republicans are clearly losing out among women voters. Such issues as abortion rights, along with federal spending for programs which women are more inclined to support, such as education and health care, have steadily pushed a number of upscale women into the Democratic Party.

Latinos were giving important support to Republican candidates until there was a sharp move to the Democrats in 2008. In 2004, Kerry beat Bush 58% to 40% among Hispanic voters. That 40% was crucial to the GOP, with Latinos helping Bush win Florida and several southwestern states. In 2008, however, despite Democratic fears that racial resentments would drive Latino voters away from their nominee, Obama carried the Hispanic vote by 67% to 31% for McCain, an 18-point gain for the Democrats.  Had the party stuck with the more moderate immigration stance of the Bush Administration and McCain’s earlier proposals in the Senate, the GOP might have held on to a much higher share of the Latino vote. Moreover, Latinos are accounting for a growing share of the US electorate. By taking a hard-line position on immigration reform and related issues -- English-only laws, for example -- the GOP is aligning itself with a demographic that is disappearing rather than one that is growing.

On a related matter, Cuban-Americans, one of the most reliable parts of the GOP base, are shifting their views on relations with Castro’s Cuba. A poll of Cuban-Americans taken in mid-April, just days after President Obama loosened restrictions on family visits and monetary payments to relatives in Cuba, showed 64% favored the policy change to 27% who opposed it. The poll was taken by Bendixen & Associates (D). The survey also showed that 67% of respondents gave Obama a favorable rating to 20% who did not.

For decades the Democrats’ “squishy-soft,” if you will, approach to foreign leftist regimes, especially Castro’s, kept this group firmly in the Republican camp and helped keep Florida, the nation’s third largest state, in the GOP column. But younger Cuban-Americans do not feel as strongly about Cuba-related issues as older generations, who are closer in time to Castro’s revolution and are standing firm in support of the restrictions.

The third group, homosexuals, also vote more Democratic, regardless of their economic standing. At its recent convention, the Log Cabin Republicans, an organization of gay GOPers, heard two speakers, McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt and Meghan McCain, the Senator’s daughter, urge their party to support same-sex marriage. Despite recent wins for gay matrimony in Iowa and Vermont, the public at large is not likely to support this major change in its social mores. However, the GOP doesn’t have to embrace same-sex marriage to position itself in a more positive position for gay voters and other social moderates and liberals who support them. A Gallup Poll of a sample of the general public, taken in May 2008, found that a whopping 89% of respondents favored equal rights for homosexuals “in terms of job opportunities.” Only 8% did not. Thus, a Republican platform that spelled out its support for such rights could make a significant move in the direction of a building a broader base without risking a backlash from a large share of the electorate.

There’s a significant age factor here as well. Older voters, themselves a shrinking share of the electorate, are much more anti-gay than younger voters, who will see their cohort’s share of the electorate grow in the coming decades. According to the same Gallup survey, by 61% to 33%, voters 65 and older believe “homosexual relations between consenting adults” should be against the law. But for voters 18-to-29 years of age, straight and gay, who will be voting in a lot more elections in the future, it’s the reverse, with 67% saying such behavior should be legal, to only 27% who say it should be illegal. Thus, the longer the GOP sticks with its anti-gay stance, the more it puts itself in opposition to the views of a growing number of voters.

The largest minority voting bloc not discussed here so far is the African-American community. In 2006, Republican candidates for statewide office in the South began to make significant inroads into the black vote. Charlie Crist in Florida and Sonny Perdue in Georgia, in their campaigns for governor, made concerted efforts to attract black votes, and garnered 18% and 17%, respectively. Similarly, in Virginia, US Sen. George Allen garnered 15% of the African-American turnout in his failed re-election bid. These were high-water marks for the GOP in high-profile races in the modern South, where Republican candidates usually get in the single-digits among African Americans. Barack Obama’s nomination and election make major GOP in-roads into this key group problematic at best. For now,  such moves as electing African-American Michael Steele as its national chairman provide an important symbol of a more inclusive Republican Party. In the longer run, however, if it wishes to expand its share of the black vote, the GOP is going to have to address some of the key issues that matter to African Americans.

Compromising on divisive social issues is not the GOP’s only path to victory. When Obama’s tax increases kick in, some of the suburban districts that have been moving toward the Democrats may swing back to the Grand Old Party. And there is always the possibility that another 9/11-type terrorist attack on the US will follow Obama’s changes in homeland security policies, resulting in a major backlash against the Democrats. But such occurrences are beyond the control of Republican activists. Changes -- some of them modest -- in the party’s stand on some social issues are in the hands of the party machinery. Taking them now in preparation for 2010 and 2012 makes good sense.


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