Representative Charlie Bass drove around removing yard signs from his New Hampshire district Wednesday, the morning after his constituents voted to oust him from his House seat. It gave the moderate Republican time to ruminate on what has gone wrong in Washington and, in particular, with his own political party.
The GOP’s conservatives, said Bass, have grown excessively rigid, making it difficult for someone like him, from a swing state, to strike compromises and solve fiscal problems in the capital.
“I’m a voice crying out in the wilderness,’’ said Bass, who has served seven terms in Congress. “I don’t want taxes to go up, but if we sit in our corners and define success as a fight rather than a resolution to the problem, we will not survive.’’
The Republican Party’s aching hangover after Tuesday’s defeat of presidential nominee Mitt Romney and failure to capture the Senate has spurred a round of existential introspection and debate about the future of the party.
On immigration, abortion, and even tax policy, some Republicans worry, the party is losing touch with the mainstream of the US electorate. They don’t suggest dropping opposition to high taxes, for instance, or opening up Planned Parenthood clinics on every corner, but they see a need to bend on some issues to broaden the party’s appeal and solve problems. On illegal immigration, they advocate for strong borders and enforcement but say paths to citizenship should be created and that Hispanics should not be subjected to Arizona-style crackdowns.
Others, however, suggest the party and its conservative orthodoxy are just fine, that Romney himself was the party’s problem in this election.
“Campaigns that have a good message, and something they believe in, and have an ability to communicate to voters are the ones that usually prevail,’’ said David Carney, a GOP consultant who advised Governor Rick Perry of Texas on his bid for the nomination.
The deep ideological divisions make it unlikely the party will settle on a quick resolution.
“We’re going back to the party of Shogun-type dynasties, where the Tea Party has their coalition, and the moderates have their coalition, and it’s going to be a battle to see who comes out on top,” said Luis Alvarado, a Republican strategist in Los Angeles with expertise on Latino voting patterns.
One faction sees a need for the party to adapt its policies for an electorate that includes more women and people of color. Some conservatives say a better approach is persuading people in those constituencies that the Republican Party stands for them.
Exit polls taken Tuesday indicate something may need to change if the party wants to avoid a similar defeat in 2016.
Romney took a hard line against illegal immigration during the GOP primary and never gained traction among Hispanics. President Obama beat him among Latinos, 71 percent to 27 percent, according to national exit polling data released by Fox News. Those numbers helped sink Romney in Colorado, Nevada, and perhaps Florida (where votes were still being counted Wednesday).
Alvarado said the party’s recent shifts and Arizona’s crackdown on immigrants have eroded the relationship between Hispanics and the party, erasing the efforts of George W. Bush to bring Hispanics under the conservative tent by supporting immigration reform.
“The trust has been destroyed by the rhetoric of a very few Republicans,’’ Alvarado said. That could include Romney, who advocated during the primary for “self-deportation.’’
Former senator John Danforth, a moderate Republican from Missouri, said Tea Party candidates such as Todd Akin, a social conservative, are damaging the GOP brand, especially among women. Akin made national news when he said a woman’s body can prevent a pregnancy in the case of rape. The fallout helped the incumbent Democrat, Senator Claire McCaskill, retain her seat.
“There has to be pushback by more traditional Republicans against these fringe people who are giving the party a bad name and losing elections,’’ Danforth said. “We have got to get off the social issues. No matter how you might feel about the abortion issue, it is over, settled, and there is no future in it. To the extent that Republicans insist on emphasizing it they are going to lose women.’’
“The position we took on immigration sounded hateful, and we’ve got to turn that around,’’ he added. “The problem is not with Mitt Romney. The problem is with the Republican Party, and it has gotten to be unattractive.’’
Another warning against intolerance came from Tom Rath, a GOP strategist and Romney adviser in New Hampshire. “It needs to be broader, it needs to be less fearsome,’’ Rath said.
More exit polls back up that assertion: Obama won among women 55 percent to 44 percent, young people 60 percent to 37 percent, and self-described moderates 56 percent to 41 percent.
Tea Party groups and other conservatives, however, point to the success of fiscally conservative candidates they backed, including senator-elect Rafael Edward Cruz in Texas. Akin and Richard Mourdock, who lost his Senate bid Indiana after saying that pregnancy resulting from rape was “something God intended,’’ were the exception, under this argument.
Conservatives say Romney was an ineffective candidate with a huge empathy gap. Asked which candidate “cares about people like me,’’ Obama beat Romney 81 percent to 18 percent.
That lack of connection and inspiration damaged the GOP’s nominee more than anything else, said Adam Brandon, spokesman for FreedomWorks, a Tea Party fund-raising group.
“You can hardly say that anyone in the grass-roots movement thought that Mitt Romney was their champion,’’ he said. “There was a lot of voting against the other guy.’’
But specialists say that any of the more conservative primary contenders would have fared far worse against Obama. John Hudak, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, went down the list: Perry, Michele Bachmann , Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Herman Cain.
With one of those figures on the ticket, said Hudak, “the question wouldn’t be how competitive the race would be. The question would be how many other states would Barack Obama have won.’’