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.