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GOP Obit Premature

GOP Obit Premature

By Salena Zito - May 3, 2009

Arlen Specter switched parties for one and only one reason: to save his career.

No principle was involved; there was no "the party left me" moment. It was pure, unadulterated political greed; he wanted his seat.

Out of honor, Specter should have resigned, had Gov. Ed Rendell reappoint him, and then run in a special election in the fall as a Democrat. Instead, he abandoned his principles and went from a fiscal conservative and social moderate to a social liberal who voted for President Obama's trillion-dollar stimulus package.

What he has left behind with his switch to the other team is everyone under the sun, as he gleefully dances on the supposed grave of the Republican Party after proclaiming its death by a thousand cuts.

"I think the reports of the death of the Republican Party are greatly exaggerated," says Texas Tech political science professor Tim Nokken. "It's been a rough couple of years for the GOP, but that doesn't equate with death."

So, no going the way of the Whigs -- which is exactly what self-agonizing Democrats said about themselves after yet another defeat in the 2004 presidential and congressional election.

"Many smart strategists were wondering if the Democratic Party was ever going to win a national election again," says Democrat strategist Steve McMahon.

Well into 2005, serious doubt existed that the 2006 midterms would be any better, he adds.

"Then (Sen.) Chuck Schumer picks this moderate-to-conservative Democrat to run for (U.S.) Senate in Pennsylvania . that Bobby Casey decision set off a snowball of choices of moderate to conservative candidates, and we thought we might win some races," McMahon recounts.

Schumer took a lot of heat for picking Casey, as did the then-chairman of the congressional Democrats, Rahm Emanuel, for picking political unknowns who had not paid their dues to run for House seats.

Both men "did it because they wanted to win," McMahon explains. They bucked the far left that for so long had run the Democratic Party.

Nokken thinks that if the Republican Party continues to be hard-line conservative on economic and social issues, it won't play well in a lot of places, especially outside the Deep South.

Former Democratic National Committee executive director Mark Siegel contends the Republican Party has taken on the values of the Deep South and is now just a regional party.

The party's base has shifted ideologically from libertarianism to religious fundamentalism, which has made it difficult to sell in the Northeast, Midwest and Pacific West, the electoral breadbasket of America, Siegel says.

"The GOP's base now is composed of old white males who are dying off," he claims, while the Democrats' base is expanding with "booming demographic groups -- young people, Hispanics, African-Americans, suburbanites."

Is the Republican Party contracting both geographically and demographically?

While Specter's switch might make it appear so, McMahon is cautious: "It was not that long ago that the Democratic Party was a party of 18 must-win electoral states.

"I would not count them out yet," he says of Republicans.

Right now, no battle for the Republican heart and soul appears to be looming. The party is pretty well united as a conservative party. That, however, might be part of its problem: A lot of Americans may be sympathetic with a lot of the party's positions on taxes, spending, etc., but may be deeply suspect of its stances on social issues.

The challenge for Republicans will be to find someone who can generate support within the party for an agenda that resonates with voters in areas where the GOP has been losing votes.

Specter's defection was the shot heard around the world -- but it is not the end of the world for Republicans.

Trends are trends until they change, says Glen Bolger, pollster for Public Opinion Strategies and Specter's longtime pollster -- until the day he switched.

"If Obama and the Democratic Congress is taking this country in a radically different direction, Democrats are going to end up in the same places they were five years ago," he explains.

"The pendulum swings both ways in this process. We are going to win some races back that we have lost in recent years. It is very easy to draw the ire of voters when you are in power -- ask the Republicans."

Salena Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. E-mail her at szito@tribweb.com
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