Republicans Look to the Future

Washington Matters

Republicans Look to the Future

Don't be too quick to discount Republicans, despite big election losses, finger pointing, infighting and post-mortem gloom. Yes, the party is bruised, but it's not broken. And with Democrats running both the White House and Congress and no President Bush weighing them down, Republicans can use the next two years to rebuild and rebound with new faces, tested stars and a fresh, realistic and less ideologically fueled approach to fixing its tattered brand. Think of it as the Straight Talk Express with people other than John McCain driving. Here's what to look for and some people to watch:

Finding their center. Republicans will work to build the party around some common themes that are in tune with their ideology and that will sell well with the public -- fiscal conservatism in a time of trillion dollar deficits, a balance between environmental concerns and the need for economic growth, targeted job retraining, blocking defense cuts, education reform built on vouchers and teacher accountability and transparency in an age of unprecedented government intervention in the markets.

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The race for the 2012 presidential nomination will begin early (it may have already) and of course, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin will be in the spotlight. But she has an uphill battle and will face competition from former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who both ran in 2008. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty may also be in the mix. He's already criticized Palin, saying Republicans need to do more than rely on "drill, baby, drill" slogans for energy reform. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich also shows signs of wanting to run, and undoubtedly several other governors and senators will test the waters.

Beyond the presidential race, think of the Republican building effort in terms of three distinct regions:


Midwest and Mountain West: Republicans here are less driven by social wedge issues. They tout fiscal restraint, cutting pork barrel spending and consensus approaches to energy, immigration and tax reforms. Two new senators to keep an eye on are Jim Risch, R-Idaho, and Mike Johanns, R-Neb. Both plan on making accountability of the financial rescue plan and a housing-mortgage intervention a major focus. And both support stronger regulations. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, a former White House budget director who backs public-private partnerships to fix state infrastructure is another to watch in coming years. Reps. John Shadegg and Jeff Flake of Arizona will lead House GOP efforts to strip wasteful spending from fat appropriations bills, a favorite cause of many fiscal conservatives. Freshman-elect Mike Coffman, Colo., is worth watching. He's less strident on the immigration issue and appeals more to western independents than the person he replaces, retired Rep. Tom Tancredo. 

Northeast Republicans: There aren't many, true. There won't be a single Republican House member from New England next year. And Republicans will only hold three seats of 29 in New York. In 1996, they held 14 of 31. Still, the region can be a testing ground for moderate Republicans, such as Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe in Maine are popular moderates. Also, freshman Rep.-elect Leonard Lance, N.J., is a moderate and self-described "Eisenhower Republican" who aims to take independent stands on environmental and social policy issues. Entering his third term, Rep. Charlie Dent, Pa., who represents struggling manufacturing cities, such as Allentown and Bethlehem, will have a larger voice in the party on job retraining and assistance plans, and he heads House GOP efforts to increase hydrogen fuel and fuel cell technology investment, among other energy issues. 

Southern Republicans: The South is still the strongest base of the party and home to a number of party leaders. Lousiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, young and broadly popular and with national ambitions, is a health, labor and business development policy wonk and known as a consensus builder. South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford has successfully pushed business-backed tort reform and tax cuts for middle and low incomers. He has lobbied extensively to expand education facilities and to attract foreign manufacturing plants. Freshman Rep.-elect Bill Cassidy, La., a physician is a Republican voice on health care, warning against moving to a large government-run insurance plan. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist is becoming more well known nationally after being on McCain's short list for vice president. He's less ideological and more centrist and consumer-focused than other sourthern Republicans. Among several others who will be rising in influence is Rep. Eric Cantor, Va., just elected House minority whip. Cantor is becoming more of a GOP point man on energy innovation and tax cuts, often and noticeably framing the latter from a middle class perspective and warning that Democrats will ultimately lean on the middle class to pay more in taxes to fund spending programs, even though they pledge not to.