Tea Parties Outside the Beltway Hold the Key to a Republican Comeback

Republicans should take a page from the Democrats' book on how to reshape a party.

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By Peter Roff, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

When the Democrats lost control of Congress in 1994, they assumed it was a fluke. That Bill Clinton's embarrassing missteps on energy taxes, midnight basketball, healthcare, and other issues had cost them control of the Senate and, for the first time in 40 years, the U.S. House of Representatives.

The Democrats assumed they would be out of power for just a little while. Well, as we know, it turned out to be just a little bit longer than that.

Now the Republicans, who are still reeling after losing control of Congress in 2006, the White House in 2008, and—fearful of being rendered irrelevant by a potential 60-vote Democrat majority in the U.S. Senate, are aiming their rifles at each other in a slapdash effort to redefine the party in ways that are more appealing to voters.

Some, like Republican National Chairman Michael Steele—who wants the party to be more "hip-hop"—are trying to figure out ways to reach out to the urban electorate and to explain to African-American and Latino voters that they do, in fact, have a choice when they cast their ballots. That the Republicans are not as they are portrayed by the Democrats—that they welcome them into their party.

The Steele strategy, for lack of a better name for it, mirrors what the Democrats did along the way to regaining control of Congress in 2006. By reaching out to rural and suburban whites and middle-class voters with a message that they were reasonable people, not at all like the Republicans made them out to be, they were able to pick up seats in the South and the industrial Midwest that left them ready to strike whenever an "October Surprise" appeared over the horizon.

The Democrats did not, on their way back to majority status, kick off a civil war leading to the transformation of the Democrats into the Democratic wing of the Republican Party. Be a little more quiet on "hot button" cultural issues like guns and abortion, or at least appear a little more accommodating to those for whom these issues were important, yes—but they didn't restock the shelves with a whole new line of products.

Unfortunately for the Republicans, the cadre of Washington, D.C.-based Republicans who constitute the permanent establishment—and the permanent establishment wannabes—the back-to-back election loses have given them the idea they have a mandate to remake and rebrand the party into something more acceptable to the black-wearing, tattooed, blogging, Twittering, living off the family name and fortune, couldn't win an election to save my life crowd.

They would all do well to read an analysis by pollster Scott Rasmussen that indicates the GOP's permanent establishment is leading the party down "the continued path to irrelevance."

"The disconnect between D.C. Republicans and Republicans throughout the country has been growing for nearly 20 years, but it became more intense and noticeable during the waning years of the Bush administration," Rasmussen said Monday.

As further evidence of the disconnect, he points to the April 15, 2009, tea parties, "viewed favorably by 51 percent of Americans" and fueled by anger at the Bush-led financial bailouts as anything else. "Many Inside-the-Beltway Republicans chose to distance themselves from the events, and many tea party participants were happy to express their anger at both Beltway Republicans and Democrats."

Rasmussen's bold prediction: "Look for the Republican Party to sink further into irrelevancy as long as its key players insist on hanging around Congress or K Street for their ideas. The future for the GOP is beyond the Beltway." And, given that the way back to power for the GOP after Watergate all but destroyed the party went all the way to Los Angeles (and Ronald Reagan) and Sacramento (and Prop. 13) before getting back to D.C., Rasmussen is probably right. It's the ideas and politicians who are tested in the hinterlands, rather than the pseudo-intellectual debates between the wannabes and the never weres inside the Washington to New York politico-media googolplex, that are going to lead the way.

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