The worst of previously envisioned scenarios played out for the GOP last Tuesday night, with the loss of both the House of Representatives and the US Senate to Democratic control. The sweeping victory saw several vulnerable Republican incumbents – including Senators Rick Santorum, George Allen, Jim Talent, and Lincoln Chaffee – picked off, as well as several open seats going to the Democrats. Further, not one Democratic incumbent was defeated – a resounding statement against the status quo, and against the previous leadership of this country.
Despite attempts to spin the victory as a repudiation of the Republicans as a party, and of conservatism as an ideology, Tuesday’s result was, in actuality, neither.
The victory experienced by national Democrats was a direct response by America to a governing party which had, by and large, forsaken its principles and abandoned those beliefs which propelled it to power in the first place.
When the Republicans took over Congress in 1994, they did so with – and as a result of – a platform built on limited government, entitlement reform, tax relief, and a balanced federal budget. Over the twelve years since, the GOP lost sight of those goals and beliefs, forgot the reasons that they had been elected, and strayed from those principles. Massive spending bills, chock full of earmarks, passed the Congress one after another, record deficits and debt were reached, and the largest new entitlement program in nearly half a century was created in Medicare Part D.
Furthermore, the GOP lost its moral compass during its time in control of Congress, giving in to the siren call of money, media approval, and base desires – the tangible benefits of power – in the varying forms of lobbyist deals, the page scandal, and the overall compromise of principles.
These shortfalls can be corrected, and it is possible that a stint in the minority could be just the jumpstart that the Republican Party needs to once again remember why it was selected by the American people to govern in the first place.
One exception to the anti-GOP and anti-incumbent trend was the state of Georgia, where the results of November 7 reflected just the opposite sentiment. Governor Sonny Perdue, the first Republican in the state’s high office since Reconstruction, won an overwhelming victory in his bid for reelection, defeating his challenger, Democratic Lt. Governor Mark Taylor, by twenty points.
Some Republican candidates were able to ride the Governor’s wave into open offices, as well. State Senator Casey Cagle, for example, who handily defeated Abramoff scandal-tainted former Christian Coalition frontman Ralph Reed in a heated primary election, became the state’s first GOP Lieutenant Governor since Reconstruction. Likewise, Karen Handel, former chairman of the Fulton County Commission (the largest county in Georgia, and home to Atlanta), handily defeated her Democratic opponent to become Secretary of State.
Voter approval was not limited to Republicans, though, as every Democrat running for reelection to statewide office was successful in his or her respective bid, as well. 37-year incumbent Tommy Irvin fought off a stern challenge from Republican nominee Gary Black to remain the state’s Commissioner of Agriculture, and Congressmen Jim Marshall of the 8th District and John Barrow of the 12th eked out victories over GOP challengers Mac Collins and Max Burns by fewer than 2,000 votes each.
The resounding victory won by Governor Perdue, coupled with the victory of Democratic incumbents like Irvin, Marshall, Attorney General Thurbert Baker, and others, showed that, unlike voters elsewhere in the country, Georgians were very satisfied with the direction of their state, as well as with their own representatives in government.
While Republicans managed to take races in which the incumbent was not running for reelection, the victory by Democratic officeholders showed that, to Georgia voters, Party affiliation was secondary in importance – but that, given a choice and an open seat, the GOP is still the party of choice in the Peach state.
Lessons can be learned from this rare GOP electoral success. The victory in Georgia demonstrated that governing as advertised, and running on actual achievements and realistic proposals, can be a recipe for success. The national election, by contrast, revealed that running as conservatives, and governing as moderates or liberals, is not – and neither is running on a platform whose sole plank is “the other side is worse,” as the Democratic Party found out through their losses in 2002 and 2004.
On both levels, the voters have spoken loudly and clearly. Georgians believe that the state is largely headed in the right direction and, while not willing to rock the boat by throwing Democrats out of office, they are trusting Republicans with more and more responsibility.
On the national level, America has taken the GOP by the collar and given it a good shake, while simultaneously giving the Democratic Party an opportunity to show what it can do in the majority. Where things go from here will depend on whether or not the Republican Party heeds the message it has so clearly been sent this week by the American people: return to the principles you once claimed to stand for, or face another 40 years in the wilderness.