For conservative commentators concerned that this crop of Republican presidential candidates won’t spur a conservative revolution, think again. The likely Republican nominee—Mitt Romney—might not be in the mold of Ronald Reagan, but 2012 is shaping up to be a year when the GOP is positioned to enact a conservative counteroffensive.
Republicans are in good position to sweep the presidency and Congress next November. President Obama is proclaiming himself the underdog, and top officials at both the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee are highlighting efforts to localize congressional races—a sure sign that the party is facing serious national headwinds.
For a gauge of how daunting the environment is for Obama, just take a look at his reelection team’s strongest arguments for how he will prevail in a weak economy. Obama’s aides tout his fundraising advantage, arguing that the battleground-state map gives them a pathway to 270 electoral votes. They hold out hope that a weak Republican nominee emerges—in other words, anyone but the former Massachusetts governor.
Let’s dissect those arguments one by one. On fundraising, the big question isn’t whether Obama will have enough money to compete across the country (he will) but whether Republicans will have the resources to match him in the battleground states that matter. If Romney is the nominee, he’ll have a substantial war chest, plus assistance from outside groups, including the deep-pocketed American Crossroads. Given the Republican side’s intensity and the liberalized campaign finance rules post-Citizens United, it’s hard to imagine the GOP nominee struggling financially.
For the president, his poll numbers matter more than his financial figures. Obama’s campaign strategists say his money advantage will expand the map, but the reality is that all the cash in the world won’t convince voters in Republican-leaning states like Georgia and Arizona to support the president, given how weak he is in more favorable battleground territory.
Nearly all the money on both sides will be directed at the dozen or so battleground states. It takes a lot of cash to get one’s message out effectively, but there’s a point of diminishing returns. Any Democratic advantage will result not from big-bucks television ads aimed at persuading voters, but from nitty-gritty expenditures made to turn out the party’s core voters in closely contested states.
There are signs that the presumed battleground states won’t necessarily be as competitive as advertised. A newly-released USA Today/Gallup poll pegged the president’s job approval in the swing states at a meager 40 percent, with Republicans significantly more enthusiastic to vote than Democrats. Drill down to the most likely presidential voters, and the GOP advantage expands.
News outlets are calling these states toss-ups, but state-by-state polling suggests Obama would lose most of them if the election was today. If Obama’s national job approval rating doesn’t climb to around 47 percent, that “toss-up” category could well bleed into traditionally Democratic states.
Despite the political environment looking favorable to Republicans, outspoken conservatives sound downright despondent at the prospect of a Romney nomination. RedState’s Erick Erickson proclaimed that with Romney as the GOP standard-bearer, “conservatism dies and Obama wins.” Bill Kristol headlined a recent column: “It’s not 1980 anymore.” George Will wrote last month that Romney is a “recidivist reviser of his principles” who could “damage GOP chances of capturing the Senate.”
Au contraire. Republicans don’t need a revolution to recapture control of the Senate; they merely need the public’s sour mood against Obama to trickle down to congressional Democrats. Republicans have put at least nine Democratic-held Senate seats squarely in play, while only two Republican-held seats are at serious risk of flipping. Factor in the president’s unpopularity and consider that a disproportionate number of races are taking place on Republican-friendly turf, and Republicans stand a decent chance of improving upon the 53 Senate seats they held after their 1994 revolution.
Back then, the Republican majority was leavened with moderates and liberals like Sens. Mark Hatfield of Oregon, William Cohen of Maine, Bob Packwood of Oregon, and James Jeffords of Vermont—and led by Bob Dole of Kansas, who as a Senate majority leader was guided more by pragmatism than conservative ideology. If Republicans retake the Senate in 2012, they’d be led by Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell—hardly a milquetoast moderate.
That’s not even factoring in the Republican advantage in the House, where a decidedly conservative caucus is holding the party’s largest majority since 1946. Republicans could end up losing House seats, but there are few signs that Democrats are close to regaining the 25 necessary to regain control. In the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, Democrats are at the same place on the generic ballot as they were a month before the 2010 Republican landslide. Meanwhile, the redistricting process is protecting many of the GOP’s most vulnerable, including many who won election last year on a tea party platform.
Romney is far from a movement conservative, but if conservatives’ goal is rolling back Obama’s policies, the ideological intensity of their standard-bearer may be less important than that of the candidates who will be sharing the ballot with him. If Romney is elected, there’s a good chance he’ll have a conservative cavalry under him eager to spur the types of changes not seen since President Reagan’s first term.
This article appears in the Nov. 9, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.