It is gallows humor time for Republicans in Congress, where one lawmaker jokes that “there’s talk about us going the way of the Whigs,” the 19th century political party long extinct.
“That’s not going to happen,” Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., hastens to add, although a little more than a year before the 2008 election, the major leading political indicators still point downward for a party abruptly turned out of power in 2006.
Fundraising for Republican campaign organizations lags. That is strikingly so in the House, where the party committee spent more than it raised in each of the past two months, reported only $1.6 million in the bank at the end of August and a debt of nearly $4 million.
Democrats reported $22.1 million in the bank and a debt of slightly more than $3 million.
Candidate recruitment has been uneven, particularly in the Senate, where Republicans must defend 22 of the 34 seats on the ballot next year. Democrats boast top-tier challengers for GOP-held seats in Colorado, Virginia, New Hampshire, Maine, Minnesota and Oregon.
Republicans have yet to put forward a prominent challenger for any Democratic-held seat, although an announcement is expected soon in Louisiana.
Additionally, nine Republicans in the House and three in the Senate have announced plans to retire. Some of those leaving are in midcareer, when a departure often signals pessimism about the prospects for regaining the majority. Democratic retirements total two to date — both are House members who are running for the Senate.
“The Democrats will continue to be the majority party in the House and Senate and Hillary Clinton will make history by being the first woman president” in 2008, predicts Rep. Ray LaHood, one of three Illinois Republicans to announce his retirement so far.
What makes LaHood’s prediction stand out is his willingness to say it publicly.
Numerous other Republican lawmakers, aides and strategists said Democrats appear headed for two more years in power in Congress, but they declined to say so on the record.
Despite their difficulties, Republicans are not deep in the minority. A switch of 16 seats would give them control of the House next year; a change of one or two seats could deliver the Senate.
Despite the GOP’s worst defeat since the Watergate era of the 1970s, Republican Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma said recently, “We have more seats than Ronald Reagan had on his best day.”
He added that Republicans have a better chance of winning a House majority in 2008 than they do of capturing the Senate or the White House. Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, chairman of the GOP senatorial committee, offered no response.
But Cole’s job performance as head of the House GOP political arm is under internal challenge. In a recent private leadership meeting, Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, sought the dismissal of the group’s two top campaign aides, saying the committee lacked aggressiveness.
Cole refused and said he would quit first before firing the staff. Boehner, the party leader, backed down, at least temporarily, but may yet seek to install a senior aide at the committee. The officials who discussed the events did so on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to discuss private conversations.
After a long turn in power in Congress, LaHood and other Republicans say the change in fortunes is partly the result of historical cycles. “The American people like a change,” he said.
At the same time, President Bush’s approval is stuck in the mid-30s and the Iraq war remains unpopular with the public.
Nor have the ethics woes that plagued the party in last year’s elections abated. Corruption investigations swirl around Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens and California Rep. John Doolittle. To the particular distress of party leaders, Idaho Sen. Larry Craig pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct last summer in an airport men’s room sex sting operation and has yet to make good on an earlier pledge to resign.
Stevens and Doolittle deny all wrongdoing, as does Craig, who has asked a Minnesota judge to permit him to withdraw his guilty plea.
Polls, too, chart the decline of the Republicans.
A recent Gallup poll reported that 59 percent of those surveyed have an unfavorable impression of the Republican Party. By a margin of 47-42 percent, they said Democrats will do a better job of protecting against terrorism and military threats. Asked which party would better maintain prosperity, the majority preferred the Democrats, 54-34.
Despite their woes, numerous Republicans say they may have weathered the worst of it.
The race for the 2008 presidential nomination may sort itself out as early as February, they say, giving the party a new face months before the elections.
“Whoever it is, it won’t be George W. Bush,” said Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind. “I deeply admire the president, but many Americans have a somewhat unmovable impression of the president at this point,” he added.
Others predict Clinton will win her party’s nomination for the White House and say her polarizing effect on the voters will benefit GOP candidates in swing areas currently held by Democrats.
“A Clinton candidacy would help energize Republicans to go out and vote in down-ballot races,” said Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster working in House and Senate campaigns. “It will help the Republican case for divided government.”
Pence also said the military situation in Iraq is improving, and that a looming spending struggle between Bush and the Democrats should help reassure conservative voters who have become disaffected.
But efforts to draw clear distinctions with the Democrats can cut both ways.
Senate Republicans from New Hampshire, Maine, Oregon and Minnesota, who face particularly tough races in 2008, all voted in recent days for a children’s health care bill that Bush has pledged to veto.
“I just do not understand his decision, and I think it would be terrible,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. She faces a challenge from Rep. Tom Allen, D-Maine.