Republicans shaped by House struggle to pivot to big races

For figures like Michele Bachmann, pivoting to the national stage hasn’t been easy (Photo: Wikipedia)

As election day 2012 looms, Americans are waking up to the fact that we have two parallel political cultures, one intensely partisan and ideological and the other far more moderate and centrist in its approach.

This isn’t a gap that exists between Democrats and Republicans, or liberals and conservatives.

It is, rather, a difference between the increasingly gerrymandered reality of US House seats, and the far more broad political context that shapes Senate and presidential contests.

Over the last twenty years, Democrats and Republicans — the GOP far more skillfully and deliberately — have moved to redraw district boundaries in House races, so that districts are “safe” for their candidates.

As a consequence, a growing number of meaningful congressional elections actually take place during the primaries.

Whoever prevails to represent the Democrats in a safe “blue” district will almost certainly win election in November.  The same holds true in “red” districts.

This means that House members have grown more and more partisan, more ideologically pure.

Because the modern GOP is more ideologically driven than the Democratic Party, the House has emerged as the logical base of power and the source of policy ideas for the party writ large.

It’s noteworthy that this year’s presidential slate included, at various times and in various roles, Paul Ryan from Wisconsin, Ron Paul from Texas, and Newt Gingrich from Georgia, and Michele Bachmann from Minnesota.

(Former House majority leader Dick Armey was also a driving force in organizing and mobilizing the tea party movement in 2009 and 2010.)

This hard-line formula has worked for Republicans in the Congress, allowing them to end decades of Democratic control in the 1990s and cutting short Nancy Pelosi’s tenure as House Speaker in the 2010 midterms.

But in “generalist” elections — for US Senate and for president — this approach is proving far more risky, perhaps even self-destructive.

As we’ve noted before, many of the biggest, most populous and affluent states in the country are already resoundingly Democratic.  These are parts of the US where the GOP’s House-centric brand just doesn’t work.

That trend alone is making it exceedingly difficult for Mitt Romney — himself an old-school centrist — to top Barack Obama in the race for the White House.

In fact, one of Romney’s core challenges has been trying to satisfy a GOP base that has grown used to their politicians sounding more like fire-breathing members of Congress, while also communicating effectively with a more generalist audience.

This disconnect explains, in part, Romney’s “47%” gaffe.  It’s a natural stance for House members to talk dismissively of people outside their

Can the ideas that made Paul Ryan a leader in the Republican House help win a more general, national election?

ideological comfort zone.

These days, thanks to gerrymandering, “those people” generally don’t live in the congress-member’s district, or are marginalized politically.

Which means that dismissive and even hostile rhetoric about immigrants, the poor, people who live in cities, minorities, the unemployed, and those who rely on entitlements has become a natural part of conservative rhetoric.

Indeed, opposition to those groups is often seen as a marker of ideological purity, a sign of conservative bona fides.

But the fact is that Romney does need some of those “other” constituencies — Hispanics, the government-dependent elderly and women, in particular — if he hopes to win a national election.

This same disconnect between the two types of American politics is also shaping races for the Senate.

America’s ten most populous states — the parts of the US where the majority of citizens live — are already represented by Democrats by a 12-to-8 margin.

It’s telling, I think, that Republican senate candidates tend to fare better in smaller, more homogenous states which have populations and demographics that actually resemble concentrated House districts.

The GOP’s brand, and its more pointed ideological posture, appears to be hurting Senate candidates again in this year’s big-state Senate contests.  Rep. Todd Akin, whose fire-breather approach was a perfect fit in a bright red House district, has fallen behind in Missouri.

Sen. Scott Brown has tried to distance himself from the Republican Party’s leadership, but appears to be falling behind in his re-election bid in Massachusetts.

And a Florida Senate race that once looked like a likely pick-up for Republican Connie Mack — another House member from a “safe” GOP district — is now looking like a fairly easy win for the Democrats.

In many of these “generalist” races, Republicans have been haunted by hard-line positions that they staked out while representing more ideologically focused communities in the House.

We’ll see in November whether some of these candidates can find ways to pivot from one type of more fiery, intra-party, primary-style politics to the less ideological “I can represent everybody” stance that tends to prevail in big statewide and national contests.

As a sort of footnote, I’ll point out that this trend simply hasn’t occurred in the Democratic Party.

More ideologically pure members of congress on the left — Dennis Kucinich, for example — haven’t enjoyed the same resonance in national politics, nor do thy define their party’s brand.

Try to envision a figure like Kucinich mobilizing a national movement the way, say, Ron Paul has done within the GOP.   It just doesn’t scan.

Or imagine Nancy Pelosi attempting to run for national office, or trying to shape the national culture, in the way that Gingrich has tried to do.  It’s a nonstarter.

Instead, Democrats have tended to look for leadership and policy ideas from their governors and from members of the Senate.

This one difference serves to illuminate just how far apart our two major parties have grown, not just in their policies and their ideological stances, but in the basic mechanisms they use to generate ideas, choose leaders, and shape their own internal cultures.

Tags: , ,

24 Responses to “Republicans shaped by House struggle to pivot to big races”

Leave a response
  1. Newt says:

    Interesting.
    Nationally, Republicans seem determined to become a regional party dominated by white, rural, elderly, low(or, more properly, bogus)-information voters, sustained mainly by right-wing Gordon Gecko-type billionaires, bless ‘em.

    Too bad, because the nation could use two parties made up of sensible, reasonable people, contesting from from reasonable, if different, positions. We used to have this nationally , and still do, fortunately, in most of our region.

    Popular. Like/Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 1

  2. Paul says:

    “Because the modern GOP is more ideologically driven than the Democratic Party, the House has emerged as the logical base of power and the source of policy ideas for the party writ large.”

    Isn’t this what the House of Representatives was originally designed for? How many house members would we have now it it grew with the population as originally designed? It would need a much larger building!

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  3. JDM says:

    “As we’ve noted before, many of the biggest, most populous and affluent states in the country are already resoundingly Democratic. ”

    Like, umm, bankrupt California?

    Like, umm, bankrupt Michigan?

    Like, umm crime-riddled Illinois?

    Oh, those “affluent” states…

    Yeah. I can see the Democrat influence there.

    Hot debate. Like/Dislike Thumb up 5 Thumb down 13

  4. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I think that Republicans have an advantage in that people who are Democrats are just more difficult to organize. They are more likely to go off on tangents.
    Believe me, I’ve been to the meetings and I’ve seen it.

    Hot debate. Like/Dislike Thumb up 5 Thumb down 3

  5. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    On the point about Republicans being better at gerrymandering; republicans are very good at long term strategies to wield power.

    Look at what they have done with the Supreme Court. That is why this election is so important, the next President may have the chance to decide how the 3rd branch of government works for the next generation or more.

    Popular. Like/Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 1

  6. Brian Mann says:

    JDM –

    California is the most productive state in the US, accounting for on out of seven dollars of GDP in the entire country. Illinois ranks fifth in the nation, producing one out of twenty dollars of GDP in the nation. Michigan is the 13th in terms of GDP and 8th in terms of exports.

    –Brian, NCPR

    Popular. Like/Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 4

  7. verplanck says:

    Paul,

    If we followed the original language of the constitution (1 seat per 30k residents), our House would likely be safely Dem, as the additional seats would flow to the large states like NY and CA and their urban populations. Example for california (pop 37.6 million):

    current # of reps: 53
    original intended # of reps: 1,256

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  8. Paul says:

    It is funny you don’t see too many Gordon Gecko types out there in the sticks where republicans seem to have more support. I think some of that image is a fabrication. There is plenty of support for the democratic party on Wall Street. Look they quietly got a lot more handed to them by this administration and the fed than anybody else. But hyping the auto bailout is a smart move. It is small but an important way to “buy” the votes in the states where you need them, places like Ohio and Michigan. Brilliant political move it will probably get them 4 more years.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

  9. Peter Hahn says:

    I believe seats in the house are proportional to population. The only reason there might be more Dems if there were 30K per house seat is that it would be harder to gerrymander that many seats.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  10. Paul says:

    Peter, they are. If you are referring to my comment, my point was that if you look at the original plan for the House I think we would have thousands of legislators based on the population we now have rather than hundreds.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  11. Paul says:

    Look at these county budget gaps we are seeing. These “rural” places are toast. When a county has to try and sell a nursing home faster as a budget balancing strategy you know you are pretty much finished. The “death” of these places will be good for the democratic party.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  12. Paul says:

    Peter, sorry I didn’t see that other comment. Yes, Verplanck, I agree.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  13. dbw says:

    Fiscal problems in places like California and NY are not due to mismanagement but Red State Socialism. Dixie and many other red states get billions and billions more dollars in federal money than they pay in. That money comes from places New York, Illinois, and Michigan. Here at home if we could keep only 10% more than we pay out now, there would be no problem meeting our state’s financial obligation; pensions, debt service, etc.

    Popular. Like/Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 1

  14. Pete Klein says:

    A very conservative Republican politician in Hamilton County once upon a time responded with one word when asked why was he a Republican. His response was “Lincoln.”
    Now it seems the one word response for many Republican would be “Davis.”

    Popular. Like/Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 2

  15. Paul says:

    “If we followed the original language of the constitution (1 seat per 30k residents), our House would likely be safely Dem”

    This is true if we were to make a switch in the here and now. I wonder how things would look if it was done this way over time?

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  16. Paul says:

    Pete, sorry who is “Davis”???

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  17. Peter Hahn says:

    Jefferson Davis?

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  18. Paul says:

    Peter thanks. I should have figured that out.

    Pete Klein, get bent! You can’t be serious with the comment?

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 3

  19. Pete Klein says:

    Paul has a dirty mouth.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

  20. Paul says:

    Pete, that is a good one! Like Bart Simpson I will write on the board 100 times that I will never use that term again.

    So are you insinuating that many republicans would like to see slavery reinstated in our union?

    But I think that some republicans should understand like Jeff Davis did back then that even though they think they have a noble fight (at least many in the south considered it one) they will eventually lose in the face of an overwhelming force.

    Times are changing adapt or get left behind.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  21. Pete Klein says:

    No, Paul. Just insinuating the Republican party has opted to be influenced by the Dixicrats who left the Democratic party and joined the Republican party.

    Popular. Like/Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  22. Paul says:

    Pete, I get your point. Unbend yourself!

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  23. Paul says:

    This picture of Paul Ryan is hysterical!

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  24. RE: Proportional representation. To have truly proportional representation we would have to increase the base to the population of the smallest state. In round numbers (nearest 100K) that would now be 600K. Using that number we would have 500 members of the House today. California would have 61 seats (8 more than they currently have) and NY would have 31 (an additional 4 seats). Texas would gain 7 seats, 43 instead of the 36 they currently have.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0