Steele’s Challenge
He faces some tough GOP math.


On winning the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele pledged to “bring this party to every corner, every boardroom, every neighborhood, every community.” He was engaging in rhetorical stretch: Given its limited resources, the RNC cannot literally go everywhere. But his aspiration makes political sense. On the congressional level, Republicans have to expand their reach, because Democrats currently have a bigger playing field.

Democrats can contest just about every kind of House district: rich and poor, rural and urban, black and white. Last year, Montgomery mayor Bobby Bright won an Alabama district that had belonged to the GOP since 1965. In the First District of Idaho, which President Bush twice carried by 2-to-1 margins, Democrat Walt Minnick ousted Republican incumbent Bill Sali. The list goes on.

It doesn’t work the other way around. There was only one 2008 race–an odd one–where a Republican took a deep-blue district. With a delayed election date that depressed turnout, Anh “Joseph” Cao edged out scandal-scarred William Jefferson in Louisiana’s Katrina-depopulated Second District.

That was a fluke. In reality, large swatches of Democratic turf are off limits to the GOP. Ever since the 1960s, Republicans have seldom won more than 10 percent of the black vote, so they are not competitive in African-American districts. Democrats hold 30 of the 31 districts where African Americans make up 40 percent or more of the population (with Cao’s seat as the sole exception). Republicans also find it tough to win Hispanic votes. Democrats have 35 of the 42 districts that are at least 40 percent Hispanic. The few Republican victories are not signs of progress: Three of the seven come from the Cuban American districts in Florida, whose voting patterns differ from those of other Hispanic communities.

New England Republicans have been an endangered species for years, and with the 2008 defeat of Chris Shays, they hold none of New England’s 22 House seats. Now is the first time that the region has lacked any Republican House members since the party’s formation in the 1850s. The neighboring state of New York once had a robust GOP that could win even urban areas. No more. Of New York’s 29 House members, only three are Republicans, none from New York City.

In all, 106 Democratic districts fall into one or more of these categories: black, Hispanic, New England, New York. If the GOP concedes these seats, then it must win about two-thirds of the rest in order to regain a majority. It is hard to see how Republicans could pull off that feat, especially when Democrats can snatch so many GOP seats.

The Senate numbers are just as discouraging. After taking over a number of Republican seats in 2008, Democrats are nearing a 60-vote majority. Bringing down that number will be difficult. According to Gallup, there are seven states in which Democrats have at least a 25-point lead in party identification: Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Vermont, New York, Connecticut, and Maryland. (Republicans do not have as large a margin in any state, even Utah.) No Republican has won a Senate election in any of these states since 2000.

But these seven have something else in common: All have elected a Republican governor at least once in the last eight years. Gubernatorial elections are different from senatorial elections, because governors deal with different issues and expectations. Nevertheless, these GOP victories suggest that the Republican label is not totally toxic in blue America. Chairman Steele–who himself won statewide office in Maryland–might give careful analysis to these states to see what Senate candidates can learn from GOP governors.

He might also study the other side. As Democratic national chairman, Howard Dean pursued a “50-state strategy” to rebuild party organizations in places where they had withered. Though the strategy was controversial at first, there is evidence that it has been a major asset. If Steele takes this approach, he may have to work harder than Dean. As long as President Obama is in office, the GOP will make little headway in African American constituencies. And it will take time and patience to crack other Democratic strongholds.

That poses special difficulties, because candidates and their staffs understandably focus on the next election, not the next decade. But if Republicans hope to recover, they need to take a realistic, long-term perspective. They need not aim for radical transformations: A few points here and a few points there can make a real difference.

Such a strategy does not mean that Republicans must renounce the Second Amendment, embrace abortion, or endorse amnesty for illegal aliens. Indeed, it would make no sense to abandon the principles that matter to the party’s most loyal supporters. But Republicans do have to frame those principles in terms that appeal to a wider array of voters. The party cannot think of growing if it depends on a base that is shrinking.

– John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. With James Ceaser and Andrew Busch, he is co-author of Epic Journey: The 2008 Elections and American Politics.