As I write this, one week before the votes get counted in this year’s election, the question I still can’t answer satisfactorily is “What the heck happened to the Republican Party?”
Time was (not too long ago) when they were firmly in control of all three branches of the national government and even seemed poised to make a run at grabbing control of the New Mexico Legislature.
No more. In the face of what might be the most overwhelming Democratic victory since Lyndon Johnson rendered Barry Goldwater an obscure footnote in the history books, one can only wonder what produced such a complete self-immolation as the GOP has just experienced.
It is a little risky to start asking this question before the votes are counted, but it would take a turnaround of unprecedented proportions to prevent the coming Democratic landslide, and nothing McCain, Palin and their followers are putting forward seems capable of that kind of table-turning.
At this juncture, the only unresolved issue is just how devastating the defeat will be for the party of Abraham Lincoln—who has to be rotating rapidly in his grave at the type of campaign his political descendants have waged.
The question is not simply how badly they’re losing but how horribly bankrupt their storehouse of ideas, policies and credibility has become. And how fast it all went bad.
For a first stab at explaining this, I revert to baseball. It is a field of endeavor that helps me understand human activity and one to which I return whenever I am puzzled. In the political realm this year, the Republicans are the New York Yankees.
They field a lineup of well-established, very expensive stars. That approach used to produce world championships, routinely. But in recent years, they regularly fold in the face of younger teams’ energy and innovations. The Yankees/Republicans have stuck to an outdated strategy ... and they are getting older, slower and ever more top-heavy.
The GOP has become thin in depth, subject to injury and unable to respond quickly to changes in how the game is played. They can still trot out a few heavy hitters, and their pitchers love to throw at the opposition’s heads, but winning eludes them because they haven’t taken care of the dozens of little things that go into successful election efforts.
The Republicans’ share of registered voters continues to dip. Less than one-third of New Mexico voters are registered as Republicans while Democrats are more than 50 percent, and the gap between the two major parties grew by at least 40,000 voters this year alone (four years ago Bush won by less than 5,000 votes here).
The Congress that convenes in Washington in January will certainly have many fewer Republicans than the one that is currently seated, and it may actually provide the 60 Senate votes the Democrats need to block filibuster attempts.
In New Mexico, Republicans are in peril of losing all five of our Congressional seats—and at the moment they hold three of them. They may see their numbers in the Legislature dwindle even lower than the minority positions they have held for the past decade. They didn’t even field candidates in more than 20 legislative races.
But the most shocking weakness that’s been revealed in the Republican lineup is the fundraising deficit. Over the years, one truism of New Mexico (and national) politics has been that Republican money overcomes Democratic numbers. Not this year. All up and down the line, the GOP has been outspent, out-financed and outwitted.
Their television ads seem dark, whiny, wounded. Their so-called bright new star, Darren White (running for the First Congressional District), has spent his television money trying to cast doubts about his opponent, Martin Heinrich ... even though White started the race with an enormous advantage in name recognition. Each time he pays his own campaign money to put Heinrich’s name on the tube, White has perversely eroded his principal advantage. Now Heinrich’s name is as well-known as White’s.
As the leader of the Republican ticket statewide, Steve Pearce defeated a centrist Republican (Heather Wilson) in the primary ... and has since moved farther and farther into right field, ensuring that precious few independents and almost zero Democrats will support him. The only candidate to the right of Pearce is his southern congressional district running mate, Ed Tinsley, whose increasingly strident rhetoric has brought victory within the grasp of his opponent, Harry Teague.
What ails the GOP in New Mexico is what ails it nationally: It hitched its wagon to a single engine, the Conservatism Express, and rode it close to the top. Now that conservatism has lost its appeal and its economic fairy tales have proven unable to stay afloat in stormy economic times, the GOP has nowhere else to turn. It is sinking as rapidly as the “free market” fortunes it helped create in the first place.
For all of us, not just Republicans, this poses a dilemma. The U.S. and New Mexico both need a vital opposition party to prevent the Democrats from once again making the same mistakes they’ve made in the past. A two-party system doesn’t work particularly well if there is only one party. If the Republicans can’t attract new, young, energetic candidates, then ideas, voters and eventually even the Democrats will be negatively affected.
Of course, in New Mexico the opposition might very well emerge from the Green Party if the Republicans aren’t up to the task. Over the years, the New Mexico Greens have served the very useful function of keeping the Democrats’ feet on the ground. Now more than ever, that stabilization mustn’t be neglected.