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Is the Base Deserting the GOP?

By Alan Abramowitz

James Dobson is mad as hell and he’s not going to take it any more. The conservative broadcaster and founder of Focus on the Family is upset with President Bush and congressional Republicans for “just ignoring those that put them in office.” And Dobson isn’t the only prominent religious conservative who’s upset with the GOP. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council recently criticized the President and congressional Republicans for failing to act on issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion, and stem cell research.

But it isn’t just religious conservatives who are upset with the GOP. “The problem in my mind, and the only way to explain the very significant erosion is just a disgust with what appears to be a complete abandonment of limited government,” said former Republican congressman Pat Toomey, the head of the conservative Club for Growth. Other conservatives are just as upset about the Bush Administration’s proposed immigration reforms—they want stricter enforcement of current laws and stronger efforts to seal the border, not a guest worker program and a path to citizenship.

The danger to President Bush and congressional Republicans, according to many analysts, is that angry conservative voters will sit out the 2006 midterm elections. And if the GOP base doesn’t turn out in November, Democrats could regain control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1995.

In response to this threat, Jim VandeHei and Peter Baker of the Washington Post report that, “Karl Rove, Bush’s top political advisor, and GOP leaders . . . are planning a summer offensive to win back conservatives with a mix of policy fights and warnings of how a Democratic Congress would govern. The plan includes votes on tax cuts, a constitutional amendment outlawing same-sex marriage, new abortion restrictions, and measures to restrain government spending.”

Republican leaders are right to be worried about the midterm elections. President Bush’s approval rating has been hovering in the low thirties and since World War II, when a president’s approval rating has been below 50 percent, his party has lost an average of 38 seats in the House and five seats in the Senate. And the President has been losing support among Republicans—between the end of April and the middle of May, Mr. Bush’s approval rating among Republicans fell by 13 percentage points in the Gallup Poll. According to VanderHei and Baker, “these usually reliable voters are telling pollsters and lawmakers they are fed up with what they see as out-of-control spending by Washington and, more generally, an abandonment of core conservative principles.”

The problem with this analysis, however, is that it is not the conservative base that has been abandoning the GOP in recent weeks. It is the moderate wing of the party that has turned against the President and the Republican Congress.

According to the Gallup Poll, the recent decline in support for President Bush among Republicans has occurred almost entirely among moderate-to-liberal Republicans. The President’s approval rating among conservative Republicans has barely declined at all—going from 79 percent on April 28-30 to 77 percent on May 8-11. During the same period, however, the President’s approval rating among moderate-to-liberal Republicans fell from 65 percent to only 45 percent.

Despite all of the criticism that the President has been receiving from conservative leaders, there is little evidence that the conservative base of the Republican Party is abandoning him. In fact, the base is just about the only segment of the electorate that still supports the President and the Republican Congress. But this is hardly good news for the GOP.

A close look at the 2006 election map shows why a strategy of appealing to discontented conservatives could backfire on the GOP. Almost all of the Republican incumbents whose seats are in jeopardy this year represent marginal or Democratic-leaning states and districts. Most of these states and districts are located in the Northeast, the industrial Midwest, and the Pacific Coast. These endangered Republicans cannot be reelected simply by mobilizing the party’s conservative base. In order to defeat strong Democratic challengers, they will have to appeal to independent voters as well as moderate-to-liberal Republicans and their task will only be made more difficult if the President and congressional Republicans spend the next few months trying to energize the party’s conservative base.