Is the Republican Party becoming more conservative; and if so, is that likely to lead to success at the polls?
Certainly the rise of the Tea Party phenomenon, most of whom self identify as Republicans and most of whom say they are more conservative than most other Republicans, provides some evidence of a movement to the right for the party.
There was the special election in New York's 23rd district in November, 2009. This congressional seat was the most reliably Republican seat in the nation with Republicans winning since 1873. The candidates were chosen by local party officials since it was a special election. The Republicans chose Dierdre Scozzafava; the Democrats chose Bill Owens and New York's Conservative Party chose Doug Hoffman. Hoffman ran on a strictly conservative platform that included strong opposition to abortion and gay marriage. Scozzafava and Owens were both pro-choice. Scozzafava was dubbed insufficiently conservative by more conservative Republicans. Tea Party Barbie, Sarah Palin, and Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty showed up to campaign for Hoffman. A poll taken on October 31, 2009 showed Scozzafava leading only among the funny name community but behind both the Conservative and Democrat by fifteen and sixteen points respectively. Humiliated by the lack of support from the Republican establishment, she withdrew from the election and petulantly endorsed the Democrat candidate Owens. On November 3, Owens defeated Hoffman. Apparently Palin's recitation of her usual bumper sticker slogans, winks and all, and the endorsement of Governor "Who?" weren't enough to influence the outcome. But was this a repudiation of the new conservatism? The Democrats in Washington, after dancing in circles and popping corks, announced that it was so.
Then there is the case of Arlen Specter who simply jumped ship in the face of conservative opposition. The five term Republican Senator from Pennsylvania, who as a Republican for forty years, built a reputation as a pragmatist and moderate, looked at the public opinion polls in the just held Republican senatorial primary and saw certain defeat at the hands of the more conservative candidate, Pat Toomey. Not ready to head to the rocker on the front porch, and abandon his long political career, Specter searched and found his inner Democrat, changed parties and entered the Democrat primary against congressman Joe Sestak. In a political calculation as stark as Specter's, the Democrat establishment, including President Obama, tossed former Navy admiral Sestak overboard and rallied to their new Democrat colleague's support. In the just held primary, Sestak prevailed by a healthy 54% to 46% margin. A victory by Toomey in November would make another statement about the efficacy of the conservative trend for Republican candidates. Sestak's victory over Specter is being interpreted by some as more evidence of the "anti-incumbent" mood said to be sweeping the country. If that is true, anti-incumbancy would not be a conservative phenomenon as Sestak is a certifiable liberal. However, this election was less clear cut in terms of trends because many voters regarded the party switching Specter as an opportunist simply trying to prolong his career.
Now we have the interesting case of Florida Governor Charlie Crist. Crist, a popular governor with moderate Democrat and Independent support, seemed a sure Republican victor for the Florida U.S. senate seat which opened up this year with the retirement of George LeMieux, whom Crist, as governor appointed in 2009 to fill out the term of retiring Senator Mel Martinez. But Crist ran into a political hail storm with the candidacy of conservative Marco Rubio for the Republican nomination . As Crist's "moderate" political stance came under fire by conservatives, the polls started changing dramatically and Rubio built a 30 plus percentage point advantage among Republican voters.
To his credit, Crist did not follow Arlen Specter's defection and announce that he was a Democrat at heart and just wanted to "come home". The Democrats have a viable candidate in U.S. Representative Kendrick Meek, though in a two way race with Rubio he was far behind. Crist, seeking to parlay his centrist image into support from moderate Republicans, Democrats and a significant portion of Independents announced he was leaving “party” politics and would run against both Rubio and Meek as an Independent. The polls immediately showed Rubio's large lead dwindle down to statistical insignificance, making the three way race a toss up and putting Democrat candidate Meek back in contention. (More cork popping emanating from Democrat headquarters in Washington.) By splitting the Republican vote Crist may turn what was once a Republican lock for the senate seat into an early Christmas gift for the Democrats. If so , the question arises; did the Rubio candidacy and his highly conservative image alienate enough moderate Republicans and Independents to become self defeating?
In yet another example of Tea Party like muscle flexing, conservatives in Utah successfully deposed three term Senator Bob Bennett as the Republican nominee in the November elections. Bennett's sins?; he had voted for the TARP bank bailout in the last days of the Bush Administration and co-sponsored a bipartisan health care bill mandating health care coverage. His two “more conservative" opponents will face each other in a primary later this year.
In Kentucky, Rand Paul, son of Republican (libertarian) Representative Ron Paul, won a huge victory over his Republican opponent in the recent primary. Paul proclaimed his victory as a message from the Tea Party. More evidence of a "right wing" surge in the Republican Party? Maybe, but these two candidates were seeking to replace long time Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning who is retiring. Former baseball player Bunning was already so far "right wing" that just a little scoot more and he would have fallen completely off the bench. So was Kentucky just continuing a preference, or is Rand's victory a move in a new direction?
There are many in the Republican Party who ascribed the dramatic Republican losses in the 2006 congressional elections to the idea that the Republican's in Congress had indeed abandoned their conservative principles and acted like Democrats in terms of the growth of government and runaway spending. If true, then the "return" to these principles by a new set of conservative candidates should be productive both for the party and the nation. However, if these "conservative" candidates once nominated seem to be leaning too far to the right to appeal to the more moderate general electorate, then the Republican tent will have shrunk to the point of political irrelevance. A Sestak win in Pennsylvania and a Crist win in Florida would be widely interpreted as such.
Other races in the November, 2010 congressional elections will provide further answers, but may be inconclusive given the anti-incumbent mood in the country. Will victories for Republican newcomers affirm the move to the right by the party or will it simply reflect "punishment" for incumbents seen to be "out of touch" with their constituents and unable to solve the pressing problems facing the country?
The new "conservative" candidates would do well to emphasize the economic issues i.e. deficits, debt, jobs, and the growth of interventionist government, which are of primary concern to a broad segment of the electorate and deemphasize the highly divisive and permanently irreconcilable social issues of abortion, gay rights etc. To get elected the new conservatives will still need moderate and independent votes.