GOP wins Tuesday may not mean all that much

For Republicans, an election win of any size Tuesday would be a blessing. But victories in Virginia, New Jersey or elsewhere won’t erase enormous obstacles the party faces heading into a 2010 midterm election year when control of Congress and statehouses from coast to coast will be up for grabs.

It’s been a tough few years for the GOP. The party lost control of Congress in 2006 and then lost the White House in 2008 with three traditional Republican states — Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia — abandoning the party.

So even if political winds start blowing harder behind them and even if they can capitalize on Democratic missteps, Republicans still will have a long way to go over the next year because of their party’s own fundamental problems — divisions over the path forward, the lack of a national leader and a shrinking base in a changing nation.

The GOP would overcome none of those hurdles should Republican Bob McDonnell win the Virginia governor’s race, Chris Christie emerge victorious in the New Jersey governor’s contest, or conservative Doug Hoffman triumph in a hotly contested special congressional election in upstate New York.

In fact, 2009 seems to have underscored what may be the biggest impediment for Republicans — the war within their base.

Not that the GOP would casually brush off even a small stack of victories on Tuesday.

One or more wins would give the Republicans a jolt, and a reason to rally in the coming months. Victories certainly would help with grass-roots fundraising and candidate recruiting. And they might just be enough to reinvigorate a party that controlled the White House and Congress through much of this decade, only to lose power in back-to-back national elections.

Viewed from the other side, a GOP sweep would be a setback for Democrats. It could be seen as a negative measure of President Barack Obama’s standing and could signal trouble ahead as he seeks to get moderate Democratic lawmakers behind his legislative agenda and protect Democratic majorities in Congress next fall.

Still, with Democrats in control, the onus is on the GOP to get its act together. George W. Bush, the president many Republicans came to see as an election-day albatross, is gone, but the party troubles born under him linger.

Republican leaders in Washington certainly are mindful of the challenges.

“It’s going to be a difficult road to walk, to work with relatively new entrants into the political system and to work with them to show them that, by and large, we are the party who represents their interests,” House Republican leader John Boehner told CNN on Sunday, arguing that there’s “a political rebellion” taking place in the country.

Others are more blunt.

“Right now there’s no central Republican leader to turn to, and there’s no central Republican message,” conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh told Fox News on Sunday. “The Republican message is sort of muddied. What do they stand for? Right now it’s opposition to Obama.”

A debate is waging over whether that’s enough — or whether the party has to be for something, anything really, to be able to claw its way back to the top. Similar hand-wringing happened in the GOP ahead of the 1994 midterms. Just weeks before those elections, Republicans came up with the Contract with America — and ended up taking control of Congress.

Heading into the 2010 elections, the GOP also faces a very real split between conservatives who want to focus on social issues — which tend to work best during peaceful, prosperous times — and the rest of the party, which generally wants a broader vision, particularly given recession.

Proof of a divide is in the special election in New York’s 23rd Congressional District. Potential 2012 presidential hopefuls trying to solidify their conservative credentials, Sarah Palin and Tim Pawlenty, endorsed Hoffman, a conservative third-party upstart, over the GOP-chosen candidate, moderate Dierdre Scozzafava. Badly trailing in polls, she ended up dropping out and — in a slap at the GOP — endorsing Democrat Bill Owens.

The White House is suggesting that those developments show that hard-liners are taking over the GOP and the trend will affect the 2010 elections. Predicted presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs on Monday: “This is a model for what you’ll see throughout the country.”

Indeed, there are similar tensions in Senate primaries in Florida, California and elsewhere, where conservatives are challenging establishment-backed candidates.

Adding to the party’s woes: No one — or rather everyone — is speaking for the GOP.

Fiery talk show hosts like Limbaugh and Glenn Beck have become the angry white face of the party, filling a vacuum created by Bush’s departure as the its standard-bearer and the lack of one single person to emerge as its next generation leader.

The 2008 presidential nominee, John McCain, has all but disappeared from the Republican power structure. His running mate, Palin, refuses to disappear — much to the delight of tabloids and to the chagrin of elder party statesmen. And one of the most unpopular politicians in recent times, former Vice President Dick Cheney, keeps popping up to attack Obama — a reminder of the country’s and the party’s problems under Bush.

What’s more, the GOP’s ranks are thinning: Only 32 percent of respondents called themselves Republicans in a recent AP-GfK survey compared with 43 percent who called themselves Democrats.

Also, the party’s power center is mostly limited to the South, the one region McCain dominated last fall; Obama won almost everywhere else — including making inroads in emerging powerhouse regions like the West, although Republicans still solidly control several lightly populated states in the area.

And demographic, cultural and, perhaps, economic changes in America tilt in the Democrats’ favor. Consider that Hispanics, a part of the Democratic base, are the nation’s fastest growing minority group. Consider that more states than ever are permitting same-sex unions; Maine will vote Tuesday on whether to allow gay marriage. Consider that the emerging new industry — so-called “green jobs” — is focused on the environment, a core Democratic issue.

Still, Republicans sense opportunity — at least in the short term.

The bloom is off the Obama rose, and the public is giving the Democratic-controlled Congress low ratings.

Economists say the recession is over but jobs aren’t reappearing and unemployment is still expected to hit 10 percent. The war in Afghanistan continues, and the public is deeply divided over it. Obama’s expansion of government and budget-busting spending isn’t sitting well with most Americans. And independents are tilting away from Democrats.

All that raises this question: Can the GOP take advantage of such conditions — or are the problems the party faces too great? Stay tuned to 2010 for the answer.