When Sen. John McCain conceded defeat to Democrat Barack Obama last year, things were pretty grim for the Republican faithful.
In addition to losing the presidency after eight years, Democrats increased their majorities in the U.S. House and Senate.
But now things appear to be turning around — at least a bit — for the GOP.
Thanks to election results in Virginia and New Jersey on Tuesday, Republicans sense what they hope is the start of a comeback for the party that suffered a serious drubbing in November 2008.
New Jersey's Chris Christie and Virginia's Bob McDonnell each captured governorships previously held by Democrats in their states. Both are now being held up by their fellow Republicans as examples of what is possible.
The party also seems poised for what is expected to be gains in both houses of Congress in the 2010 midterm elections, even as it wrestles with its own internal ideological divisions and battles over what future the party should take.
Longtime GOP pollster Ed Goeas says there was a lot of "overstatement about the demise of the Republican Party." Goeas says a lot of it is a result of the natural swing of the pendulum away from the party in power, but he says it's also because the policies President Obama and the Democrats are pursuing have energized the opposition.
"The intensity of Republican voters is 10 points higher than Democrats at the current time," Goeas says, adding that it's the first time Republican voters have actually been more intense about voting than Democratic voters in six years.
Republicans On Offense
Among the first signs that Republicans were picking themselves up off the mat came this summer as they angrily confronted Democratic members of Congress at health care town hall meetings. There have been anti-tax rallies large and small.
Such events put Democrats on the defensive and even forced Obama to alter his message and to personally dispute Republican talking points that included claims of government death panels.
At an event in Portsmouth, N.H., in August, the president decried the Republican misinformation campaign. "The way politics works," he said, "people who want to keep things the way they are will scare the heck out of people. And they'll create boogeymen out there that just aren't real."
But the aggressive anti-Obama tactics were also indicative of the fight going on within the GOP. During Tuesday's off-year election, in addition to the GOP wins in the Virginia and New Jersey governors' races, Republicans actually lost a seat they had held in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1871.
In the 23rd District of New York state, Republican nominee Dede Scozzafava, who had been selected by a panel of party chairmen, dropped out of the race days before the election. She was watching her poll numbers plummet in the wake of high-profile endorsements from the likes of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Fox News personality Glenn Beck, and former congressman Dick Armey for a conservative third-party candidate in the race.
In the end, the divisions among Republicans resulted in Democrat Bill Owens being the unlikely winner. Conservatives accept no blame for that, arguing that if a conservative had been the nominee from the start, the seat would still be Republican.
GOP consultant Mike Murphy argues that the party needs to be more — not less — inclusive. He says such ideological litmus tests are bad for the party and that Republicans can't look to the likes of Beck, Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh for leadership. "I think a lot of the talk radio guys, who right now are the loudest voices in the Republican wilderness, actually can't deliver a pizza, let alone a vote," he said.
Murphy says that new leaders need to emerge, especially from the ranks of governors and other officeholders.
Addressing Voting Demographics
Still, next year's midterms could be very good for Republicans. The party out of power traditionally sees decent gains two years after losing a presidential election.
But Murphy says his nightmare is that a strong Republican showing will lead to an assumption that things are back on track for the party. He says any gains will most likely be a result of Obama's and Democrats' mistakes, rather than things Republicans are doing right.
He says the party needs to address some much longer-term and very ominous demographic trends. Young voters went big for Obama, or as Murphy puts it, "We got our clocks cleaned."
Latinos, meanwhile, see the Republican Party as intolerant on immigration. Murphy notes that they are the fastest-growing demographic segment and that in a decade they may outnumber black voters.
In last year's presidential race, "we lost [black voters] by 36 points. We cannot sustain those kind of losses and only win elections on angry white guys," Murphy said.
That is not the majority view within the party. The ideological battle includes how to interpret voting trends. Figuring it all out will be a messy process, but for now things are looking much better for Republicans than at the start of the year.