Republicans’ wake-up call

For Republicans counting on massive gains this November, last Tuesday’s elections were a cold dose of reality.

In Pennsylvania’s 12th congressional district, the special election to replace deceased Rep. John Murtha (D) was the lowest of low-hanging fruit for Republicans. Their candidate, Tim Burns, led comfortably in most pre-election polling, in the only district in the nation to vote for John McCain in 2008 after voting for John Kerry in 2004. Burns had a comfortable fundraising advantage. National Republicans dumped $1 million into the district, linking Democrat Mark Critz to President Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). With Obama polling in the 30s and the healthcare law unpopular in this corner of Pennsylvania, this race should’ve been the kickoff for this election season’s big Republican wave.

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Instead, Critz won with an eight-point margin.

While Democrats hold nearly 60 seats as Republican as the Pennsylvania 12th, only about a dozen are eight points more Republican. Republicans will have to outperform Tuesday’s results by a significant margin to make gains in November. This seat wasn’t a fluke, just the latest in a series of Democratic House special-election victories in Republican districts such as the New York 23rd, which Democrats now hold for the first time since the 1850s.

Tuesday also delivered the biggest hero to the conservative scene since Joe the Plumber and Sarah Palin — Rand Paul (son of Ron). His fiery campaign, based on so-called constitutional “freedoms,” helped him crush establishment pick Trey Grayson, the secretary of state, in the Kentucky Republican Senate primary. Had Grayson won, the seat would’ve been in the “safe Republican” column. But conservatives wanted — and selected — a true believer.

Early poll numbers showed Attorney General Jack Conway, the Democratic nominee, running competitively against Paul. Worse for Republicans, Paul made clear that he intends to run openly — party stalwarts might say too openly — on true conservative issues. Among other things, Paul publicly challenged the constitutionality of the Civil Rights, Fair Housing and Americans with Disabilities acts. He would ax the Department of Education. He has accused Obama of being “un-American” for putting “his boot heel on the throat of BP” (being a real American in Paul’s world apparently requires allowing foreign oil companies to despoil the Gulf Coast and destroy the economies of several American states). His “business knows best” attitude is absolutist — when two miners were recently killed in a mine plagued by safety violations, Paul merely shrugged, “Maybe sometimes accidents happen.”

While these views are actually held by the conservative mainstream, Republicans aren’t keen to air them in public. That’s why Republicans have refused to offer any new ideas beyond “Nancy Pelosi is scary, and Obama, too!” Better that, than to reveal the contempt conservative ideology holds for some basic cornerstones of our society.

As the Pennsylvania House race proved, a winning message is critical, as is the right candidate. And while Republicans ended up saddled with Crazy Rand Paul, Democrats scored big that same Tuesday. Democrats nominated the strongest general-election candidates in the Pennsylvania and Kentucky Senate races. In Arkansas, the unpopular Sen. Blanche Lincoln was forced into a runoff primary, and her loss would give Democrats an outsider to run against a de facto entrenched incumbent in Rep. John Boozman.

 Republicans still have some critical advantages in this tough political climate. But with the economy improving and the intensity gap between the GOP and Democratic bases narrowing, those advantages are being erased — certainly discouraging news for Republicans, given the whooping they suffered last week.

Moulitsas is founder and publisher of Daily Kos.