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THE NEW YORK TIMES
Buoyed By Resurgence, G.O.P. Strives For An Era Of Dominance
By ADAM CLYMER
May 25, 2003
ZEELAND, Mich. The Republican Party's dream of becoming the dominant party was on full display the other day at the Ottawa County Lincoln Day dinner here. Although George W. Bush lost Michigan in 2000 and the state elected a Democratic governor last November, the national and state party officials heaping roast beef and chicken onto their plates at the local fish and game club were buoyantly predicting they would take the state in 2004.
The attorney general of Michigan, Mike Cox, elected in 2002 by 5,200 votes after carrying Ottawa County by 40,712, said President Bush could count on a "grass roots army of the people who got me in office."
Jack Oliver, deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee, said the county exemplified the Republican Party's renewed focus on "putting people back to work in politics, going door to door, friend to friend, neighbor to neighbor."
With the Congress thinly divided along partisan lines, another presidential election taking shape and the rules of campaign finance in legal limbo, the two national political parties are at crucial turning points.
Republicans are the most encouraged. Party officials around the country, convinced that this may be their moment, are raising the prospect of an era of Republican dominance.
Republicans already hold the White House, expect to continue to control the House of Representatives and have a majority in the Senate. For the first time in 50 years, a majority of state legislators are Republicans. Almost as many Americans (30 percent) call themselves Republicans as call themselves Democrats (32 percent), the narrowest gap since pollsters began measuring party identification in the 1940's.
But Republicans are not stopping there. In Michigan, as well as in other large industrial states that Mr. Bush lost, the Republican Party, nationally and at the state level, is making big investments in building new grass roots operations that its leaders contend will pay huge dividends in the next election and put the party in an even more commanding position.
One of the architects of Republican growth, Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, summed up where his party stands. "We are at parity right now," he said, "with a slight edge and good prospects."
In contrast, the Democrats are still dispirited by the outcome of the disputed 2000 election, shut out of control of Congress and the White House and confronted by a popular Republican president fighting a war against terrorism. The party finds itself in a desperate effort to rebuild and to avoid permanent minority status.
Still, for all their confidence, wise Republicans remember false dawns of impending majority status after the elections of 1980 and, especially, 1994, when under Mr. Gingrich's leadership the party overreached by challenging President Clinton to shut down the government and got the blame for shutting it down.
Yet Prof. John J. Pitney, a Claremont College political scientist, said: "In the past couple of years, I think we've seen a shift from rough parity to a slight Republican advantage, which I think reflects a shift in public interest to national security, which Republicans own. If you think about bombs and rockets most of the time, you're probably going to vote Republican."
The public greatly prefers Republicans on issues from national security to taxes, though Democrats hold advantages on specific matters like health care and on the more general idea that they care about ordinary people. The Republicans' financial lead is huge and growing, with $441 million in federally regulated contributions to all national party organs in 2001-02, compared with $217 million for the Democrats. That is buttressed by 500,000 new contributors to the Republican National Committee last year and more than 100,000 so far this year.
With Karl Rove, the White House political aide, as their chief strategist, Republicans have serious plans to use their national committee not just to help Mr. Bush get re-elected but also to build their party for the long haul.
Last fall's successes in Congressional elections depended heavily not only on Mr. Bush's campaigning but also on a revived effort to get out the vote, something Republicans had forgotten in recent years while unions worked harder than ever to help Democrats in 2000. The 72-Hour Project, named for the last hours before polls closed but involving months of organizing, tapped heavily into people, like evangelical Christians, who have voted heavily Republican for president but usually skip off-year elections.
For 2004, the party will move into another realm that is usually the preserve of Democrats: voter registration. Matthew Dowd, the president's pollster, said computers would identify nonvoters in Republican neighborhoods. That and other registration efforts, including having party workers at naturalization ceremonies, could "expand the pool of voters" by as many as three million, Mr. Dowd said.
At the same time, Republicans are trying to make inroads into Democratic constituencies like Hispanics, African-Americans, union members and Jews, he said, so that "long before Democrats can go after swing voters, they have to solidify their base."
A rising Pennsylvania Republican, State Representative Kelly Lewis of East Stroudsburg, said he won minority votes in 2000 after coming to the aid of minority homeowners who were losing their homes after developers and builders enticed them into taking out fraudulent loans. "Instead of ignoring it because it is happening to `them,' " Mr. Lewis said, "we just did it as an issue because it impacted people."
Marc Racicot, the Republican national chairman, spoke of outreach programs toward people "we think are Republicans who just don't know it yet." He acknowledged that with some groups, including blacks, "we have an uphill challenge sometimes, to prove to nontraditional Republicans that we are worthy of their trust."
Of course, parties always have plans.
The reason to take these intentions seriously is that since 1974, the Republican Party has stayed with such seemingly mundane efforts as direct-mail fund-raising, campaign training schools and recruiting candidates for state legislatures, treating them as farm teams to provide eventual major leaguers. It has encouraged and worked with policy institutes like the Heritage Foundation that translated ideological instincts into legislative proposals with defensible numbers attached to them. Ronald Reagan passed out the foundation's "Mandate for Leadership" at his first cabinet meeting, and the foundation helped fill the ranks of the current Bush administration.
None of those avenues to power have been ignored by the Democrats, but the Republicans have stayed with them and fortified them far more intently.
Another reason to take Republican aspirations seriously is that Republicans live by the adage of the satirist Finley Peter Dunne's Mr. Dooley, "Politics ain't beanbag." They have built their strength in the South by appealing to white resentment of civil rights policies, and sometimes by discouraging voting by blacks, as they did last year in Louisiana's Senate runoff, which the Democratic incumbent, Mary L. Landrieu, won anyway by a margin of four percentage points. When it comes to hard-hitting campaign advertisements, they have used everything from Willie Horton's image to the suggestion that Senator Max Cleland, who lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam, was unconcerned about national security.
Today's aspiring majority has its roots in the wreckage of Watergate, the 1974 election when Republicans lost 43 seats in the House, ending up with fewer than a third of the seats. They lost 6 governorships and held only 12, only 2 in any of the 10 largest states. They came out of the election with 2,385 state legislators, down 618 or 21 percent.
Robert M. Teeter, a Detroit pollster, was hired to measure the party's troubles in a national survey. His report to Eddie Mahe, the executive director of the Republican National Committee, was blunt: "We are no longer a minority party. We have achieved the status of a minor party."
That poll showed that 18 percent of Americans thought of themselves as Republicans, a low, while 42 percent were Democrats. At least as bad, Mr. Teeter said in the report's summary, "While the Democrats are seen as being somewhat too much for labor and blacks, they are also seen as being the most patriotic, having the greatest belief in hard work and the value of hard work, and by a very large margin the most open to new people, the most concerned for `people like you' and having the strongest belief in the value of helping others." Sixty-one percent of those surveyed in the study said Republicans excessively favored rich people.
The party turned quickly to devices then considered shocking, like having President Gerald R. Ford sign a fund-raising letter for House candidates in 1975. It was not an immediate path to solvency; the party had to close its doors for a month in 1975. Despite Mr. Ford's defeat in 1976 by Jimmy Carter, the party continued rebuilding. Bill Brock, the national chairman from 1977 to 1981, pushed direct mail, not just to raise money but also because he thought it would provide a core of committed partisans. "It was not only good economics; it was good politics," Mr. Brock said recently.
Mr. Reagan's nomination in 1980 (after his near-miss in 1976) was the biggest step on the road back. His success convinced suspicious conservatives that the political deck was not stacked against them, and they enlisted in the Republican Party and ultimately took it over.
Nancy Sinnott Dwight, a Midwestern moderate who ran the Congressional campaign committee, said, "For us to prevail, the party was going to have to be hospitable to people far to our right."
Mr. Reagan reciprocated by turning to moderates. He chose George H. W. Bush, who had derided Mr. Reagan's tax-cutting plans as "voodoo economics," as his vice president, and Mr. Bush's campaign manager, James A. Baker, as White House chief of staff.
This accommodationist style has continued to work for Republicans, because for all the stories that get written about divisions over abortion and the environment, Republicans are more cohesive than Democrats and have a few core beliefs lower taxes, less bureaucracy, more military spending that unite them more than social issues divide them.
While Mr. Reagan's victory brought in a Republican Senate and a lot of House members, those gains did not last. It took Mr. Gingrich to make the Republican trend deeper than the presidency.
They laughed when Mr. Gingrich started talking about controlling the House. After all, it had been Democratic so long (since 1955) that it almost seemed to be part of the Constitution.
"They thought I was crazy," Mr. Gingrich said recently. But he was dedicated in working to create a unifying message and ruthless in his attacks on corruption real and exaggerated among Democrats, and Republicans won the House in a landslide in 1994.
Republicans have held that House majority through intense discipline, dedicated candidate recruitment and heavy spending, and much more forceful House leadership than Democrats ever managed. Their narrow majorities have held them together better than the Democrats' past big margins.
Barring economic calamity, the House seems securely Republican until at least the redistricting after the 2010 census. In the Senate, the Democrats have more tough seats to defend than the Republicans do. The presidency is perhaps the least secure Republican base, if only because personalities and the qualities of campaigns can turn those elections around. As Mr. Gingrich said, "The presidency is the least mathematical and the most prone to chance of all the major offices."
But Republicans have the advantage, and not just because of mechanics like direct mail or the 72-hour project or Ottawa County's 500 volunteers at the last election. For 20 years or more Republicans have been selling ideas that the public likes. As Mr. Teeter says, "You look where the country is: foreign policy and national security, economic and tax policy, and line them all up it is a center-right country."
Those values worked for Bob Beauprez, a representative from Denver's suburbs. Before he won by 121 votes last fall, he went out and asked for votes in communities that his party often ignored. Mr. Beauprez said he won votes from Hispanics and Asians "who came here looking for the American dream" the way his Belgian ancestors did. He said they liked the Republican message of "less government, personal responsibility, strong national defense and strong family values."
But none of it might have worked for the party were it not for the Watergate debacle of 1974 and four more years out of power after Mr. Carter won in 1976. As Wilma Goldstein, a veteran Republican operative whom Mr. Mahe brought into the national committee, said recently: "You almost have to roll over and be dead before you can revive. We had to do new things because we had one foot in the grave."
Republicans Explain Why the Party Appeals
"I want to make sure the dollars that we are taxed are being spent properly. I like George Bush's stance on social spending and funding of some of the Democratic strongholds. I feel that he's putting pressure on the Congress to really come to task and be responsible in their social spending. Because of the budget deficit, I feel that the Republicans are the best party to be able to bring a balanced budget back to the United States."
Computer consultant, Woodbury, Minn.
"Republicans believe in the sovereignty of our country. The Republican Party consistently stands with our capitalistic system. They believe in free enterprise; they believe that we have the best country in the world. They take a lot less shots at what really makes this country great. The Republicans are for smaller government."
Associate pastor, Gentryville, Ind.
"It seems like the Republicans are little bit more conservative, and I tend to run more along the conservative line: not spending money so freely, that type of thing. I tend to think that the Democrats tend to raise taxes more and spend money a little more freely than I would like them to. The Democrats just seem a little more freewheeling, like Clinton."
Computer aide, Fort Wayne, Ind.
"The Republican Party just agrees with the way I feel compared with the Democratic Party, which is right now almost a communist party. You have to go some way or the other. I happen to think the Republicans are much more conservative. The Republican Party is trying to make the country so that the people are relatively self-sufficient and not living on welfare, which is paid for by the government and the people who are actually earning money."
Retired serviceman, Las Vegas