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A house united

Campaign 2008 | On Capitol Hill big gains for Democrats betray GOP shortcomings

Issue: "Obama," Nov. 15, 2008

For all the talk of change, the 2008 election turned out not to be a referendum on the status quo. Despite two years of dismal governance and approval ratings below 20 percent, the two Democrat-controlled chambers of Congress received strong endorsement from voters in the form of greater majorities. Indeed, the blue wave that swept across the American map on election night appeared more the result of a Republican Party in shambles than a mandate for a new direction.

Voters didn't want change as much as they wanted Democrats. That partisan yearning may have yielded change in the presidential race. But in Congress, it brought more of the same.

Case in point: Not a single incumbent Democrat in the Senate suffered defeat. In the House of Representatives, only four incumbent Democrats fell, allowing the party to make significant gains for the second consecutive election. In 2006, Democrats knocked off 22 incumbent Republicans and won eight open seats.

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Such back-to-back sweeping success is rare in Congress, where dissatisfaction with the party in power typically produces alternating pendulum swings from one election to the next. This time, the pendulum found enough residual momentum to hold its leftward arc due largely to a confused GOP unsure of its own message.

Exemplary of that befuddlement, Republican incumbent Elizabeth Dole, once thought invincible, a former transportation and labor secretary who served five presidents and ran for the White House in 1999, failed to connect with conservative constituents. Just six years ago, the North Carolina senator swept into office in place of Jesse Helms and quickly ascended to become the first ever female chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC). But that rapid rise to congressional prominence began its descent in 2006 when the GOP surrendered six seats and control of the Senate to Democrats. Dole lost her spot atop the NRSC and dropped a few notches in standing among many North Carolina conservatives.

She sought to recapture the support of her base with hard-line conservative positions on several recent pieces of landmark legislation. First, she dismissed the George W. Bush plan for comprehensive immigration reform with the politically charged tack of labeling it an "amnesty bill." More recently, she opposed the bipartisan bailout package.

Those stands, though unpopular in the beltway, might have restored conservative confidence in the former head of the Red Cross had she not so discolored that record with propaganda and right-wing paranoia on the campaign trail. In the closing weeks of the race, Dole fired an attack ad against opponent Kay Hagan in which a woman's voice similar to Hagan's declares, "There is no God." The clear depiction of Hagan as an atheist backfired when the Presbyterian Democrat and Sunday school teacher sued the Dole campaign for defamation and libel. The Hagan camp also released a counter ad, arguing that the race should be about real issues, "not bearing false witness against fellow Christians." North Carolinians agreed.

Such Republican dysfunction ran rampant throughout the party. Many incumbents tripped over their records in desperation to distance themselves from Bush. Gordon Smith of Oregon, the last GOP senator in the liberal Pacific Northwest, ran an ad invoking praise he'd received from Barack Obama. In another, he celebrated being first in his party to reverse course and stand against Bush on the Iraq War. Sen. John Sununu of New Hampshire ran on his record of opposing a GOP energy bill, being the first Republican to call for the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and pressing his party to soften the bite of the Patriot Act. One Sununu ad detailed such actions and concluded: "Popular positions? Not with Republicans in Washington."

For many Republicans, such campaigning against their own party ended in defeat. Voters proved unimpressed with conflicted messages. "We don't have a brand that people are confident in at the national level," said Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, a conservative Republican not up for reelection this year. "If the moderate members of the party want to continue having the tendencies of a Democrat compared to those of us who believe in conservative principles like limited government and personal responsibility, then the party's going to divide."

Coburn has long called on the GOP to recapture conservatism. In the wake of crushing defeat, his words carry an "I told you so" tone. He points out the loss of Connecticut Rep. Christopher Shays, the last New England Republican in the House of Representatives, as indicative of what happens when Republicans act like Democrats: "Had he been a fiscal conservative, he'd have had a better opportunity."


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