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The Biggest Tent Ever

Republicans build a coalition.

Nov 1, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 07 • By FRED BARNES
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The Tea Parties came first, starting in February 2009 when President Obama had been in office less than a month. Then came independents, a solid majority of whom had voted for Democrats in 2006 and 2008. By April 2009, they’d begun to favor Republicans.

The Biggest Tent Ever

Add Tea Partiers and independents to the base of Republican voters (including soft Republicans) and you have an electoral majority. And by mid-summer last year, a center-right coalition was in place. It has broadened and solidified since then, which is why we are on the verge of a Republican landslide in the midterm elections on November 2. “It’s like 1994, only more intense,” says Republican strategist John Morgan. 

The fear once widespread among Republicans that they faced 20 years in the political wilderness—40 years, Democratic strategist James Carville insisted—has vanished. Instead of decades as a minority party, Republicans (and conservatives) are escaping the boondocks after two years.

This is an amazing turnaround, but we’ve seen its likes before. After World War II, control of the House and Senate flipped four times in eight years. In those days, the economy struggled to shed oppressive New Deal and wartime regulations. Once it did, the economy grew rapidly and Democrats dominated Washington for the next quarter century.

That experience may portend a new period of what Michael Barone calls “open field politics”—that is, neither party with a reliable majority. Larry Sabato, the University of Virginia professor and political prognosticator, thinks it will take 10 years for the economy to stabilize, causing more topsy-turvy politics. We’ll see.

For now, Republicans are on top, though they won’t be in command in Washington even if they capture both houses of Congress. But they’ll be on offense, forcing Obama and Democrats to play defense. It’s fair to assume Obama is prepared to deploy his strongest defensive weapon and veto any rollbacks of his big-ticket initiatives like health care. Despite heavy midterm losses, Democrats should have sufficient votes to sustain Obama’s vetoes.

The 2009-2010 cycle has produced the kind of facts on the ground that Republicans could only dream about. Thanks go to Obama and congressional Democrats. The political environment created by their unpopular policies has produced what Republicans couldn’t on their own—a united party.

It’s suddenly a big tent party that includes everyone from Tea Party libertarians to gay moderates. They’re in agreement on the economic issues (spending, taxes, deficit, debt, role of government) and health care. Those are the overriding issues in the election. Other issues pale in comparison.

Social issues aren’t unimportant—quite the contrary. But they didn’t need to be pushed front and center in the campaign and haven’t been. The best way to achieve a pro-life Congress is simply to elect Republicans. They tend to be strongly antiabortion.

Democrats like to think the economy is their only major problem and when it perks up, their fortunes will as well. They’re misguided. The Republican coalition emerged in embryonic form in the spring of 2009 while Obama was still personally popular, the stimulus hadn’t yet fallen into disrepute, and Americans blamed George W. Bush for the bad economy. The catalyst was what Republicans now refer to as if it were one word, “out-of-control-spending.”

The Republican resurgence has a back to the future quality, restoring the political landscape pre-2006. “The famed red vs. blue model that followed the 2004 presidential race appears to be returning,” Jonathan Martin and Alex Isenstadt wrote in Politico last week. It is, with Republicans doing better than in 2004.

The Republican base in the South continues to grow. Republican pollster Whit Ayres, who specializes in Southern campaigns, says he’s been stunned by how well Republican candidates are doing. In some races, “the numbers looked so good we thought we’d screwed up the survey,” he told me. “I’m not kidding.” The polls, it turned out, weren’t faulty, Ayres says.

“Any Southern Democrat in a majority white district is in a fight for their life right now,” he says. Conservative Democrats who voted against Obama’s policies—Bobby Bright in Alabama, Jim Marshall in Georgia, Gene Taylor and Travis Childers in Mississippi—were once seen as shoo-ins for reelection to the House. This year they’re beatable.

The new geography for Republicans looks like this: a reliable base in the South and Plains states, parity or better in the Midwest and Rockies, and the ability to compete in the Northeast and West Coast. That’s roughly the red state model that elected Ronald Reagan and both Bushes.

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