Hard on the heels of the Republican Party’s third straight pasting at the hands of Colorado voters, GOP leaders agree on one thing: It’s time to dig in those heels. The reason Republicans keep losing elections, party members agreed at this weekend’s state GOP gathering, isn’t that voters reject the party’s approach; it’s that Republicans have strayed from their roots.
“The problem isn’t that Americans are less conservative,” Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele told a boisterous crowd of about 750 at a sold-out state GOP fund-raising dinner Friday night at a Littleton hotel. “The Republican Party’s credibility as the reliably conservative party is flawed, it’s missing.”
For decades, Republicans held solid majorities in Colorado’s Legislature and among the state’s congressional delegation until voters began electing more Democrats in 2004, reacting in part to perceptions Republicans had become overly beholden to the religious right and anti-tax zealots who drummed dissenters from the party. After voters agreed to curb constitutional spending limits in 2005 by endorsing Referendum C, there followed a string of defeats as Republicans lost statewide races and saw their numbers dwindle in the legislature, until Colorado turned convincingly blue for the first time in 16 years last fall.
Led by combative Chairman Dick Wadhams, state Republicans are assessing the damage and hoping Democrats make enough of a mess of things — or fail to fix the economy fast enough — that voters turn again to the undiluted GOP platform they have increasingly rejected in recent years.
After eight years of the Bush administration — and 14 years after Republicans first seized control of Congress early in the Clinton administration — the GOP had gotten too accustomed to wielding power and become complacent, Steele argued.
“We started drinking from that wonderful Potomac River, and we got the Potomac Fever, and we lost our minds,” Steele said. “We actually thought we were Democrats and we started acting like them.”
Republicans cheered Steele’s blunt pep talk, delivered on the eve of the state party’s biennial reorganization meeting in Castle Rock, where Wadhams easily fended off a pair of challengers to win a second two-year term helming the Colorado Republican Party.
It was Steele’s first public appearance after a string of gaffes and apologies led prominent Republicans to wonder aloud whether his selection as party chairman was a mistake. Steele’s problems ranged from a hasty retreat after calling the rhetoric of conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh “ugly” and “incendiary” to his declaration in an interview with GQ, quickly retracted, that abortion is a matter of individual choice.
Anyone hoping for a similar dust-up Friday was disappointed, as the national GOP’s first black chairman stuck to a message of self-empowerment and bootstraps conservatism, even making light of his recent controversies. “I admit, the last few weeks have been interesting for me too,” he said. “I learned an important lesson — you cannot please everyone, but you can certainly tick them all off at the same time.”
Steele called on Colorado Republicans to stop complaining and stand up for core conservative values of limited government, fiscal restraint and individual responsibility. “If you want to complain and moan and groan about everything going on, there’s the door,” Steele said.
A string of party leaders who trooped to the podium agreed that the party faithful have their work cut out for them, but their path to power requires only that they stick to their guns. “We believe most profoundly that you cannot do for men and women what they can do for themselves,” Steele said after recounting his own rise from poverty and unlikely climb to lead the Republican Party.
Steele elicited the night’s heartiest round of applause when he invoked the GOP’s Eleventh Commandment: “I’m tired of Republicans picking on each other instead of picking on Democrats,” and then proceeded to bash the ruling Democrats. Drawing boos at the mention of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, Steele labeled the Democrats’ agenda in Congress “a recipe that will drown this country in debt, despair and disintegration.”
“They’re gleefully planning an America where there are more people moving down the ladder of prosperity than moving up,” Steele said.
Wadhams struck the same pugnacious tone. “The only thing the Democratic spending bill is stimulating,” he said, “it is stimulating Republicans.”
Voters want a choice, not an echo, a parade of Republican officeholders, party officials and 2010 hopefuls told the crowd, implicitly rejecting calls by GOP moderates to temper the party’s tone and reach toward the middle in the wake of last fall’s election.
“We lost because we weren’t perceived as upholding our principles,” Wadhams said, perishing the thought that voters might not be in the market for those principles.
One of several potential 2010 candidates working the crowd reached the same conclusion. “You learn a little bit when you’re out in the wilderness,” said former U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez, who gave up a seat in Congress in 2006 only to lose the race for governor to Democrat Bill Ritter. “We did fail to live by our principles,” he acknowledged.
The sentiment mimics a slogan made famous generations ago by conservative movement icon Barry Goldwater, another Republican presidential nominee from Arizona who knew a thing or two about landslide defeat.
But from the shards of Goldwater’s historic 1964 loss to Lyndon Johnson, GOP leaders surely know, rose an invigorated conservative movement that led Republicans to victory in five of the next six presidential elections.
“Close your eyes and listen real quietly,” Wadhams said, hushing the crowd Friday night. “Can you hear the pendulum swinging back?”
In Colorado at least, the pendulum has quite a distance to travel. On the eve of the 2004 election, Republicans dominated the state politically – holding majorities in both chambers of the state Legislature, both Senate seats, five of seven congressional seats, the governor’s chair and all but one statewide elective office.
Three drubbings later, Democrats have exactly reversed the situation and also took the state’s nine electoral votes for Barack Obama, only the second time a Democrat presidential candidate has won the state in more than four decades.