Cover Story

Houses divided

The GOP's shaky base has Democrats bickering among themselves over how to stage a mid-term election coup

Issue: "Houses divided," June 3, 2006

Congressman Rahm Emanuel stormed out of Howard Dean's office in early May, a trail of expletives bubbling in his wake. The Illinois Democrat was reportedly displeased with the party's national committee chairman for blowing through gobs of midterm campaign cash on state races Democrats have no conceivable shot of winning.

After raking in contributions close to $75 million since the election cycle opened in 2005, Mr. Dean has subsequently drained party reserves to around $10 million, overseeing an ambitious effort to invade Republican strongholds. Mr. Emanuel's fury highlights a powerful contingent of congressional Democrats upset with Mr. Dean's leadership.

Such tension among party elites reflects a growing sense of Democratic dread that poor strategy might waste a chance to reverse the country's right-leaning political tilt. Mr. Emanuel admitted as much to The Washington Post, calling the upcoming midterm and presidential elections "a historic opportunity" and warning: "We can't squander it."

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But Republicans are hardly celebrating reports of Democratic conflict, most recognizing the primary source of such impassioned engagement: GOP dysfunction. Significant rifts along social and economic lines have rendered the Republican Party's control of Congress vulnerable to a united Democratic seizure-if only the minority party could resolve its divisive strategy debates in time. With quibbling on both sides of the political aisle, victory this November may not depend on which divided house can stand, but which fallen house can rise.

Recent events suggest further demolition remains for both parties before rebuilding can begin. Even as Mr. Emanuel delivered his tirade, some conservatives expressed dissatisfaction that congressional Republicans have not made the federal marriage amendment a priority. Southern Baptist Convention leader Richard Land believes evangelical angst extends also to President George W. Bush, who has pushed prescription drug legislation and Social Security reform but done little concerning the marriage amendment.

Polling data confirms such dissatisfaction. While media outlets celebrate Mr. Bush's plummeting approval rating throughout the country, administration aides are far more concerned with slumping numbers in traditionally strong GOP demographics. A Pew study from early May reveals that support among white evangelicals has dipped from 72 percent to 55 percent since the start of the president's second term-a statistical drop equal to that among the general U.S. population. What's more, nearly half of the surveyed white evangelicals agreed with the statement, "I am tired of all the problems associated with the Bush administration."

While disfavor directed specifically at the White House does not necessarily reflect sentiments toward the broader Republican leadership-or even future presidential candidates-it diminishes Mr. Bush's ability to assist Republican campaigns with his bully pulpit. Historically, poor public perception of party brass often triggers negative trickle-down effects on local races. But according to the Pew study, evangelical support for GOP congressional candidates remains strong, 64 percent intending to vote Republican this fall. By comparison, a majority of all Americans (51 percent) say they will vote Democrat.

With evidence of continued evangelical backing, Republicans hope to remind constituents of the party's conservative accomplishments-primarily the confirmations of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. Increased efforts to confirm similar nominees to the lower federal courts could go a long way toward solidifying support from so-called values voters concerned with judicial tyranny.

President Bush's immigration plan, securing the border while treating those immigrants already in the country with compassion, also rings true with many evangelicals-as well as most Americans (related story, p. 26). A recent Gallup poll shows three out of four Americans are committed to both curbing the flow of illegal immigrants and allowing those present to remain in the country to work or attain citizenship.

Those who call for the deportation of an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants receive support from only a fifth of the U.S. population-despite efforts to cast it as the mainstream conservative position. Still, a considerable chunk of Republican voters-as much as 29 percent, according to a recent Zogby poll-are upset with Mr. Bush's immigration proposals, further dividing the party base.

Though many evangelicals support immigration reform, that issue alone will not likely energize the critical GOP demographic. Instead, immigration threatens to consume large shares of time and energy, preventing congressional Republicans from pushing through legislation that would confirm their commitments to religious conservative ideals. The Senate revisits the same-sex marriage debate this month, but the proposed amendment is not expected to pass this year. While Democrats are not likely to reap a massive bloc of evangelical voters from such shortcomings, the potential is high for third-party support or an uninspired turnout.

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