Republican leaders across the U.S. woke up yesterday confronting a choice: Do they want to govern or do they want to fight?
The debate was thrust upon them by President Barack Obama’s defeat of Republican challenger Mitt Romney, as well as a string of losses for the party in Senate races.
“While some will want to blame one wing of the party over the other, the reality is candidates from all corners of our GOP lost tonight,” Senator John Cornyn of Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in a statement as results in the Nov. 6 election rolled in. “Clearly we have work to do in the weeks and months ahead.”
While Romney stayed out of the spotlight in Boston the day after his White House bid ended, senior aides trickled into headquarters through the pouring rain, the collars of their red campaign fleeces turned up against the wind. At Ducali, the Italian restaurant across the street, dozens of younger staff members headed to their hangout to fret about their futures over pizza and many beers.
“Can we give it a little more time,” political director Rich Beeson told reporters seeking comment outside the office building. “It’s still pretty raw.”
In Washington and elsewhere, party leaders and advocacy groups reviewed the damage and started the discussion about the Republican future. Exit polls taken by television networks and the Associated Press underscored the contrast in the demographic support for the two parties.
Romney had the advantage among older voters, whites and men, while Obama got stronger support from women, Hispanics, younger voters and those who make less than $100,000 a year, as well as near monolithic backing from blacks.
The exit polls showed Romney capturing 59 percent of the white vote -- a share of the electorate that dropped when compared with 2008, to 72 percent from 74 percent.
Hispanic voters, who increased to 10 percent of the total from 9 percent four years ago, supported Obama over Romney by 44 percentage points. That is up from the 36-point advantage Obama had among Hispanic voters in his 2008 win.
“This is a changing America with a changing electorate,” Matthew Dowd, chief strategist for President George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign and a Bloomberg political analyst, said yesterday on ABC’s “Good Morning America” program.
‘Mad Men Party’
“What’s happened with the Republican Party is they are a ’Mad Men’ party in a ’Modern Family America,’” referring to one popular television show set in the 1960s and another in contemporary times.
The soul searching among Republicans may spur a clash between two main factions: those who believe the party needs to affirm and stand by its core conservative positions against those who argue that, to expand its appeal, the party must be willing to compromise on some issues.
“I think the Republican Party really has to look in and say, ‘If we’re going to drive all of our candidates to the far right, are we going to achieve majority status in the Senate or anyplace else?” Ohio Republican Party Chairman Robert Bennett said in a telephone interview.
He touted a statement attributed to former President Ronald Reagan, a Republican icon, that “the person who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and an ally, not a 20 percent traitor.”
Said Bennett: “If we look for purity in the party, I don’t think we’re ever going to find it.”
That view clashes with those pushing for the party to stand firm on policy.
“Conservatives in the House spent the last several years working to encourage free enterprise, reduce spending, prevent tax increases, revamp Medicare and Social Security, fix a broken welfare system, expand American energy production, balance the budget and get the government less involved in people’s lives,” said Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, chairman of the Republican Study Committee, which often urges party leaders to take a harder line on fiscal issues.
“Today, our work continues,” he said in a statement.
Heritage Action, a group that presses lawmakers to support smaller government and lower taxes, sent an e-mail to supporters with the subject line: “Obama won. The war continues.”
The e-mail included a link to a Web video by Michael Needham, the group’s chief executive officer, calling Obama’s re-election “a devastating blow, but it’s not a decisive defeat.”
Needham laid out a strategy of fighting Obama at every turn, targeting the 20 Senate Democratic seats up for re-election in 2014 and, in 2016, fielding a presidential candidate “who can best articulate our shared conservative values.”
The two camps can be reconciled through a stress on ideas rather than a focus on fighting Democrats, said Andrew Shore, former chief of staff of the House Republican Conference, which works to hone the party’s message.
“There are conservative answers on immigration, health care and education that can appeal to” many of the voters the party needs to attract, said Shore, now a partner at the Washington-based Jochum Shore & Trossevin law firm. “We have to have a debate about what those ideas are; then we need to go out and sell them.”
Republicans looking at exit polling, both in congressional and presidential elections, were surprised by Obama’s ability to replicate his 2008 coalition, a prospect discounted by the models they were using, according to three people familiar with the data.
Neil Newhouse, Romney’s chief pollster, underestimated the turnout of black and Latino voters for the president, the people said. Obama’s campaign, meanwhile, had a model more cognizant of the country’s changing demographic realities.
Republicans, who retained their House majority, face an immediate test as Congress and Obama grapple with how to mitigate steep tax increases and spending cuts slated to take effect at the start of 2013.
House Republican Speaker John Boehner, at a press conference yesterday in Washington, said his caucus is willing to work with Democrats on the fiscal challenges. The two sides are “closer than many think” on ideas to revise the tax system to generate more revenue, he said.
On a call with caucus members before the public remarks, Boehner said that, while he doesn’t see Obama having a mandate to pursue tax increases, he didn’t want to shut the door on negotiation by drawing lines in the sand so soon after an election, according to two people familiar with his comments.
The Ohio Republican urged members to follow the message he would lay out at the press conference, while saying Republicans must be careful not to box themselves in -- or box the White House out, the people said.
In Boston, Romney advisers declined to speculate publicly about a future political role for the former Massachusetts governor, though they said he would be open to working with Democrats to tackle fiscal issues.
Republicans in Washington expressed doubt that he would assume a major role, with some joking that that phrase “Romney Republican” could quickly become a political slur.
“He’s a Northeastern liberal,” Charles Krauthammer, a conservative political columnist, said on Fox News. “That’s not where the future of the Republican Party is.”
Romney and his wife, Ann, left his campaign office during the stormy evening shortly before 6 p.m. last night. They piled into a silver Audi driven by his son Tagg and headed to their home in Belmont, Massachusetts.
“There’s nothing certain in politics,” he had told reporters on his campaign plane just hours before his defeat. “But I have, of course, a family and a life that are important to me, win or lose.”