Darren McCollester/Getty Images
Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown, who is running for the late Ted Kennedy's Senate seat, is ahead in the polls against Martha Coakley. If he wins, it could fuel the Republican Party with more energy.
Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown, who is running for the late Ted Kennedy's Senate seat, is ahead in the polls against Martha Coakley. If he wins, it could fuel the Republican Party with more energy. Darren McCollester/Getty Images
When President Obama was inaugurated a year ago Wednesday, it was nothing short of a festival for the Democrats. For Republicans, it was something else entirely: a reminder of the drubbing they'd taken at the polls.
But however dispirited they were a year ago, Republicans these days are energized and enthusiastic — not just in their traditional strongholds, but in Democratic states like New Jersey and Massachusetts.
"Republicans a year ago were on their backs," says Jack Pitney, once a GOP policy analyst, who is now a professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. "The president had steamrollered them in the election, and people were talking about long-term decline. Now they seem resurgent."
'Republicans Are Gaining Because Democrats Are Losing'
Today, the sound of that resurgence comes in the form of a little-known Massachusetts state senator named Scott Brown. Polls show that Brown erased a 30-point deficit to Martha Coakley in his bid for the late Ted Kennedy's Senate seat. Toss in GOP wins in governors' races in New Jersey and Virginia this past November — both offices that were previously held by Democrats — and Republicans are feeling much better.
But Pitney does offer some caution.
"Republicans are beneficiaries of the dissatisfaction, though you can't point to much the GOP has done to draw the electorate to their side," he says. "The Republicans are gaining because the Democrats are losing."
And the GOP is getting back to the basics, says Indiana Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels.
"We gave up our birthright on spending and fiscal matters and, I think, were properly disciplined for it by the voters nationally," he says.
Conservatives Have Their Energy Back
Stuart Rothenberg, who publishes the Rothenberg Political Report, says that internally, the party seems to be moving beyond the drama of the George W. Bush era with its wars and ballooning deficit and the financial crisis.
"There's a sense that they've turned the page on the Bush years — that the future is going to be better than it is now and in the past," Rothenberg says. "And really the most important thing is that all Republicans seem to agree that they don't like the Obama agenda, and they don't particularly like the Democratic congressional agenda."
Still, the public's opinion of Republicans remains very low. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll last month showed that 25 percent have a positive view of the party, while 35 percent have a positive view of Democrats. And the GOP continues to lose ground among minorities and the young.
But what is indisputable is that conservatives have their energy back. The first signs came in the form of anger over the White House push on health care. Late last summer, the so-called Tea Party movement rallied in Washington, D.C., and warned of tax hikes, a government takeover of health care, "death panels" and onerous costs to small business.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA), the No. 2 Republican in the House, says Republicans fear "unfettered power" in Washington, D.C.
Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA), the No. 2 Republican in the House, says Republicans fear "unfettered power" in Washington, D.C. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Their activism has been widely welcomed on the right, but the movement has also threatened some Republicans mounting challenges in upcoming primary elections.
In Congress, the Republicans have hung together, opposing the stimulus package and the health care bill, almost without exception.
No One Face Of The Republican Party
That pushback is important, says Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA), the No. 2 Republican in the House.
"There is a fear of unfettered power; there is a fear that there is no check and balance on one-party rule in Washington," Cantor says.
But Indiana Gov. Daniels says the party has to be careful, that just saying "no" to what the president proposes isn't sufficient. He says the party needs to put forth its own policy solutions.
"Even if no one pays them much heed for now, it's very important to get in the habit of doing that," he says. "Because our opportunity to really have a chance to do those things may come again."
Leadership remains a problem on the road back. There is no one face, nor even a core group. Some party members look to Sarah Palin, National Chairman Michael Steele, Dick Cheney — or to media figures such as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. And it's possible none of these names will be on the ballot at any time in the future.
But for now, the Republican faithful feel good to be back in the game and have a chance to celebrate again. And they're looking forward to the midterm elections in November.