ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
Republicans have used their opposition to the Democrats' health care overhaul as a rallying cry against President Obama that has reenergized supporters after the drubbing they took in 2008. This week, Republicans can sense the beginning of a comeback with big election victories in New Jersey and Virginia.
As NPR's Don Gonyea reports, the party sees a chance for big gains in next year's midterms.
DON GONYEA: Last November was about as grim as it gets for the Republican faithful. Democrats increased majorities in the U.S. House and Senate and there was this election night speech in Phoenix.
SIEGEL: A little while ago, I had the honor of calling Senator Barack Obama to congratulate him.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOOING)
GONYEA: But what a difference a year makes.
SIEGEL: Together we begin to take back New Jersey.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
GONYEA: That's Chris Christie, the winner over the state's incumbent Democratic governor on Tuesday. In Virginia, the GOP's Bob McDonnell took the governorship back from the Democrats as well. Here's Republican pollster Ed Goeas.
M: And I think there was a lot of overstatement about the demise of the Republican Party.
GONYEA: Goeas says a lot of it is a result of the natural swing of the pendulum away from the party in power, but he said it's also because the policies President Obama and the Democrats are pursuing have energized the opposition.
M: The intensity of Republican voters is 10 points higher than Democrats at the current time. That is kind of a normal swing. It's the first time Republican voters have actually been more intense about voting than Democratic voters in six years.
(SOUNDBITE OF DEMONSTRATION)
GONYEA: Among the first signs that Republicans were picking themselves 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 as well. Such events put Democrats on the defensive and even forced President Obama to alter his message and to personally dispute Republican talking points that included claims of government death panels.
P: Because the way politics work sometimes is that people who want to keep things the way they are will try to scare the heck out of folks, and they'll create boogeymen out there that just aren't real.
GONYEA: But the aggressive anti-Obama tactics were also indicative of the fight going on within the GOP. This past week in New York's 23rd congressional district, where the Republican nominee dropped out after Fox's Glenn Beck, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and others attacked her as a liberal and got behind a third party conservative candidate. The end result was a victory for the Democrat in a district that has been Republican more than a century. Conservatives accept no blame for that arguing that if a conservative had been the nominee from the start, the seat would still be Republican.
Mike Murphy is a Republican consultant who argues that the party needs to be more inclusive. And he says new leaders need to emerge, especially from the ranks of GOP governors and other office holders.
M: I think a lot of the talk radio guys, who right now are the loudest voices kind of in the Republican wilderness, partially because the media gives them a lot of attention, actually can't deliver a pizza, let alone a vote.
GONYEA: 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. Instead, he says the party needs to address some much longer term and very ominous demographic trends. Young voters went big for President Obama, and Latinos see the Republican Party as intolerant on immigration.
M: Among young voters, we're going to be all voters in the future. We've got our clocks cleaned in the last two presidential elections, particularly the last one. Among the fastest growing demographic segment, legal Latino voters, we lost them by 36 points. We cannot sustain those kind of losses and only win elections on angry white guys.
GONYEA: 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 as well. But for now, things are looking much better for Republicans than at the start of the year.
Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.