But with the majority comes all the benefits. The majority party chairs all the committees and sets the agenda, the majority decides which bills even come to the floor for a vote, the majority is in the Senate's driver's seat. That advantage can't be overstated. And the Republican party is one more seat away from getting back in that seat. The already unrealistic task of taking back the Senate in 2010 just became a little more so. It's entirely possible that, throughout his first term, Barack Obama will have a majority in both houses of congress -- the House of Representatives is probably lost for Republicans for several election cycles. Retaking the Senate was the only thing they had that was close to a realistic hope.
The GOP's biggest problem here is their base. Ideological puritans, they actually greeted the news that Specter had jumped ship with joy. "The Club for Growth PAC enthusiastically endorsed Pat Toomey for Senate in Pennsylvania when Specter was pretending to be a Republican," the influential anti-tax group Club for Growth said in a statement. "Club members will be even more committed to Toomey’s candidacy now that Specter has revealed his true identity."
After actively trying to chase Specter out of the Republican party, Club for Growth now says he's "unprincipled" and "cynical" for doing exactly what they wanted him to do -- leaving the GOP.
In fact, Club for Growth has become the moderate Republican's worst enemy. A New York Times article asks, "At issue for Republicans: Broaden, or contract?" CfG votes for the latter.
With consensus growing among Republicans that the party is in its worst political position in recent memory, some conservatives applauded Specter's departure. They said it cleared the way for the party to distance itself from its record of expanding government during the Bush years and to re-emphasize the calls for tax cuts and reduced federal spending that have dominated Republican thought for more than 30 years.
"We strayed from our principles of limited government, individual responsibility and economic freedom," said Chris Chocola, a former Indiana congressman who is head of Club for Growth, a group that has financed primary challenges against Republicans it considers insufficiently conservative. "We have to adhere to those principles to rebuild the party. Those are the brand of the Republican Party and people feel that we betrayed the brand."
But Republican leaders in Washington argued that Republicans would be permanently marginalized unless they showed flexibility on social as well as economic issues.
Now that Republicans have become less popular than the swine flu, Chocola's answer is to become more Republican. Worse, he argues that Republicans are now hated for being like Arlen Specter. There are plenty of people to the right of Pennsylvania's Specter -- say, oh, Pennsylvania's former Senator Rick Santorum -- who lost for being exactly what the Club for Growth wants.
"If we pursue a party that has no place for someone who agrees with me 70 percent of the time, that is based on an ideological purity test rather than a coalition test, then we are going to keep losing," says South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.
Two recent polls show that few voters consider themselves Republican anymore. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that only 20% of respondents identified themselves as Republicans. A Washington Post had nearly identical findings, with 21% self-identifying as GOP. The way things are now, out of every five voters, four don't consider themselves Republicans.
"Republicans turned a blind eye to the iceberg under the surface, failing to undertake the re-evaluation of our inclusiveness as a party that could have forestalled many of the losses we have suffered," writes moderate Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe in a NYT op-ed. "It is true that being a Republican moderate sometimes feels like being a cast member of 'Survivor' -- you are presented with multiple challenges, and you often get the distinct feeling that you’re no longer welcome in the tribe. But it is truly a dangerous signal that a Republican senator of nearly three decades no longer felt able to remain in the party."
"I have been a Republican since 1966. I have been working extremely hard for the party, for its candidates and for the ideals of a Republican Party whose tent is big enough to welcome diverse points of view..." Specter said when he made the switch. "Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan Big Tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right. Last year, more than 200,000 Republicans in Pennsylvania changed their registration to become Democrats. I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans."
There's no indication that Club for Growth and other GOP base groups are going to change their tactics any time soon. They'll remain the moderate Republican's worst enemy.
And, in doing so, they'll remain the Democratic party's best friend.
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