WASHINGTON -- Republican officials were still sifting through the post-election debris this week to figure out how much real damage Democrats inflicted on the GOP's power base.
One pivotal question that needs answering: Was this a long-term trend or a one-shot political anomaly, fueled by an unpopular war, that is likely to be reversed as the war recedes and other issues replace it?
As political turnovers go, this one was relatively big (29 seats or more in the House and six pickups in the Senate), but far from the tsunami that struck Democrats when the GOP won 52 House seats in 1994.
If there was any solace to be gained for the Republicans from the race-by-race election stats, it was the closeness of the contests. A White House analysis points out that some two dozen of the House races were decided by two percentage points or less, which suggests voters are still narrowly divided politically.
Another analysis by Democratic strategists Stan Greenberg and James Carville found that Republicans held on to 14 of their House seats by one percentage point. That triggered bitter complaints from Carville and others that Democratic chairman Howard Dean failed to put enough money into winnable races. In the GOP, however, officials at the state and local level were blaming Republican leaders for abandoning or watering down their party's core-conservative principles in the campaign.
"In the tight races where we had candidates who articulated the core issues like low taxes, less government and strong family values, those are the candidates that prevailed in our competitive races," said Minnesota Republican Party Chairman Ron Carey.
For example, he said, Republican Michele Bachmann, who ran as a staunch conservative with strong evangelical support in Minnesota's open 6th district, easily defeated Patty Wetterling, a liberal Democrat.
"But the candidates who tried to finesse the GOP's positions fared poorly," Carey told me. "Those who ran on core Republican issues were better able to withstand the Democratic onslaught."
Carey and other Republican state chairmen said voters remain just as conservative as they were in earlier elections, when the GOP was winning increasing majorities in Congress in the 1990s and in 2002 and 2004. What happened this time, he said, was that Republicans did not sharpen the differences between themselves and many Democrats who portrayed themselves as centrists, despite their ultra-liberal views or voting records.
"I think people still agree with Republicans on lowering taxes and trying to keep the government in check. I don't buy the argument that everybody has become a liberal," said Kansas Republican Party Chairman Tim Shallenburger. He and other state party officials do not doubt the Iraq war and the congressional scandals were the overriding issues that produced a wave of Democratic victories.
Iraq, President Bush's unpopularity and deep disapproval of Congress created the critical mass that fueled opposition to the GOP majority. More than half the voters (55 percent) opposed the war in Iraq, according to exit polls. Six out of 10 rejected Bush's justification for the war: to make the United States safer. Seven out of 10 independents -- the pivotal voting bloc that deserted the GOP in droves -- felt that way.
Some party chairmen told me that without the war, many Republicans would have won and the GOP would have held Congress.
"It would have been a completely different outcome," Michigan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis told me. "The Iraq war was clearly one of the major reasons for Bush's unpopularity, which Democrats turned into a referendum on his presidency."
But it was the GOP's abandonment of its long-held principles that these and other Republicans outside the Beltway said was the biggest complaint heard from the party's grassroots. They blamed rank-and-file Republicans in Congress who, as one party chairman said, "forgot why we sent them there."
"I heard a lot of Republicans say, 'We gave you a chance, and you spent more money than before. Why should we send you back to Washington?" Carey said. "Some said we became the people we ran against in 1994. Whether it is true or not, that was the perception in our party. It was in the minds of many voters" on Election Day, he said. "We need to talk about the issues that draw a sharp distinction between Republicans and Democrats."
As for those in Washington, especially in the national news media, who insist that Americans do not oppose higher taxes, consider a Gallup Poll just before the election. It found that 74 percent were against Democratic proposals to raise federal income taxes.
A majority of Americans still thinks the federal government spends and wastes too much of their hard-earned tax dollars. When Republicans get back on that message, the voters will once again rally to their cause.