US Presidential Election 2012

Tea party influence leaves bitter taste for Republicans

Pulled to right by ultra-conservative wing and dragged down by failure to reach out to key groups of voters, Republicans face hard choice

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 November, 2012, 5:06am

To gauge the depth of the questions facing the Republican Party after its defeat on Tuesday, just consider one fact.

It was the fifth time in the past six elections that the Republicans had lost the popular vote.

While some looking for scapegoats will point to recent events, particularly the intervention of superstorm Sandy in killing the momentum of Mitt Romney, or even the claim from some in the party he was not a "genuine conservative", far larger issues loom.

It is an old US political saying that neither major party has won when it moves to extremes. And so it was again. The political calculus starts from a simple point - you find the political centre and you try to hold it.

Yet the modern Republican Party, pulled out of the centre by the tea-party movement and fuelled by an increasingly partisan section of the media, is now further to the right than many of its previous presidents.

For all his darker side, Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, expanded national parks and pursued an equality agenda. Gerald Ford was pro-abortion. Ronald Reagan was proudly colour-blind.

And before them, former general Dwight Eisenhower issued a famous warning about the dangers of the US military-industrial complex. Years later, George W.Bush, in pre-September 11 mode, ran as a "compassionate conservative", reaching out to immigrants and promoting education.

In recent years, however, Republican hopefuls professing at least some of these views have risked being pushed out, branded the dreaded "RINO" - Republican in name only.

Romney, a one-time moderate governor of Massachusetts, could have been one of them had he not been forced to change his public stances on abortion, health care and other social and economic issues.

As the provisional results poured in, some of the statistics were stark. An estimated 71 per cent of Hispanics - now 10 per cent of the US electorate and the fastest growing immigrant community - shunned him to vote for Obama. Some 54 per cent of women voted for Obama.

And significantly, the white population has shrunk to 72 per cent of the US electorate. But Obama did better than expected, winning an estimated 40 per cent of that vote.

In a surprise to some analysts - including some nervous Democratic operatives - young people and black Americans still turned out in massive numbers for Obama.

Then there was the case of Richard Mourdock, the Senate candidate from Indiana, who lost to a Democratic rival - extending the Democrats' hold on the Senate. Mourdock, backed by the tea party, secured the nomination over a more moderate Republican, Richard Lugar, a veteran senator seen as a shoo-in.

Ari Fleischer, a Bush-era White House spokesman and a known moderate, acknowledged the dangers of his party continuing to marginalise or ignore key sectors of voters. "Republicans need to take their time and take a deep breath," he said.

With Romney's expected departure from the scene, the party is poised to turn to a new generation of rising younger leaders, including his vice-presidential pick, Paul Ryan.

The Hispanic vote - nearly as large as the 13 per cent black electorate - highlights the nuances behind the Obama effort.

While Republicans have actively courted the Christian conservative vote, the Latinos are also deeply religious, but with some key differences. Primarily Catholic, as a voting bloc they tend to be also socially conservative on issues such as abortion and gay marriage. Yet it also means they have strong feelings about social justice and the need to better protect America's poor - something that plays into many Obama policies, such as health care and pledges to tax America's wealthiest more heavily.

Hours before Romney conceded, the looming defeat was already sparking fierce debate on the partisan Fox News channel - for some political observers a symbol of mounting Republican conservatism.

While pointing out that the US was generally centre-right, veteran Fox analyst Brit Hume warned that perhaps the nation was not quite as right-wing as many believed, pointing to a large number of "moderates".

"It's [also] more liberal than many people thought," he said.

Fox host Bill O'Reilly was more blunt: "It is not a traditional America any more … the white establishment is now in the minority."

Both comments are intriguing. For two elections now, Obama's electoral machine, led by Chicago organiser David Axelrod, has displayed a forensic understanding of the demographic shifts and adjusted its approach as a result.

"Frankly, they've trapped themselves in a media bubble," said one Virginia Democratic activist. "I think they've grown vulnerable to listening to, and believing, their own propaganda."

It is a comment widely heard among ordinary voters - including independents - who are impressed by traditional Republican strengths, such as sound fiscal management, but turned off by Republican extremes.

The US House of Representatives remains in Republican hands and will prove a key barometer in the months ahead of whether the party starts to move to the middle or sticks to a hard-line position when dealing with Obama's agenda.