Skulking around Capitol Hill last week, I detected some unease among Republicans, even though they are a hefty majority in the U.S. House.
Their collective nervousness is rooted in the results of the 2012 election in which the GOP presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, lost the presidential race by about 5 million votes - the fifth Republican nominee to lose the popular vote in the past six presidential elections. Moreover, Democratic House candidates nationwide combined to win about 1.4 million more votes than Republicans.
Even so, Republicans command the House, including by a 12-4 margin in Ohio’s delegation, because they won the right in 2010 state elections to gerrymander a preponderance of can’t-lose districts.
But troubling signs are on the horizon for Republicans, evident by a Pew Research Center poll in mid-February showing that 62 percent of voters say the Republican Party is out of touch with the American people.
Interviews with members of Ohio’s congressional delegation in Washington yielded a sense from members of both parties that the Republican Party is approaching a day of reckoning. Tea party and liberty groups have cowed the party by demanding ideological purity on fiscal and social issues, marginalizing its appeal to the broader electorate, especially women and minority voters.
“There are certainly some in the Republican Party who want to turn the party into an interest group and when you do that, your start to have unanimity on issues, but you can’t be a majority party,” said Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Upper Arlington.
“If we all agreed on every social issue, it might feel really comfortable, but you’d be a minority party. The more you make people agree with you on everything, the less people you’ve got. It’s just math.”
Sen. Rob Portman, a potential 2016 presidential contender, called the tea party “an important part of our coalition,” but said the party has to build an affinity with average working people.
“We need to be more inclusive; we need to let people know the party and its positions are about everybody - and particularly about helping those who are on the bottom rung of the economic ladder to climb that ladder. not for the very wealthy; they’re fine. It’s about ensuring we can get back to where wages are growing and we have more opportunity.”
A son of Italian immigrants, Rep. Pat Tiberi of Genoa Township said he is frustrated that the GOP is not the party of immigrants, noting that his parents were Democrats until President Ronald Reagan came along.
“There’s a lesson in who Reagan was,” Tiberi said. “He was a big-tent guy. He wanted people to be successful whether they were black, brown, white, yellow or purple. He wanted everyone to be part of the Republican Party, not that everyone has to agree on everything.”
On that score, Democrats said the GOP has become more intolerant, uncompromising and ideological under the tea party influence, rendering it unattractive to vast swaths of voters in a changing America.
“They’ve got to look nationally at what’s happening with demographics - with young voters in their party, what’s happening with new citizens,” said Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown. “When I look at issues like gun safety and marriage equality and things like minimum wage, at how they’re going after workers’ rights and voting rights, they’re pretty out of touch with the country. … (Their strategy) seems to be about division.”
Rep. Tim Ryan, a Niles Democrat, said efforts by Karl Rove, the mastermind behind the presidency of George W. Bush, to break the tea party’s hold on the GOP speaks volumes about the party’s predicament.
“When Karl Rove is now the mainstream Republican trying to talk sense to the tea party people and raising money to prevent a tea party takeover, that shows you how far to the right they’ve gone,” Ryan said.
He predicted that the GOP won’t gain broader acceptance until it hits rock bottom: “I think they need to go out of power and take all the steam out of the tea party and regroup. Now they’re just hanging on by an artificial process of redistricting.”
Joe Hallett is senior editor at The Dispatch. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org