A remarkable dynamic has emerged as the Republican Party prepares for a potential takeover of one or both chambers of Congress: Few voters know, like, or can even identify a leader of the GOP.
In the latest Society for Human Resource Management/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll, conducted with the Pew Research Center Sept. 9-12, 60 percent of respondents either didn't know or declined to answer who they thought was a leader of the Republican Party. Further, 15 percent offered "nobody" as a response.
In other words, fully three-quarters of Americans draw a blank when asked who's leading the Republican Party -- seven weeks out from an Election Day where the GOP is expected to make considerable gains, if not a congressional majority or two.
A separate survey suggests this might be a problem for the men who lead each chamber's GOP caucus, House Minority Leader Boehner and Senate Minority Leader McConnell, at least if they want to continue to lead.
Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning outfit, released a Sept. 10-13 survey of GOP primary voters in which roughly one-third of respondents said both men should be replaced if Republicans gain control in November.
While the electoral landscape is tilted toward Republicans, there is no groundswell of public support for Boehner or McConnell.
In the Congressional Connection Poll, Boehner clocked in at 4 percent -- within the poll's error margin -- as the leader of the party, behind former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., both of whom got 5 percent.
McConnell was a few lengths back, at 1 percent, behind former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., who got 2 percent, and tied with radio host Rush Limbaugh, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, TV host Glenn Beck and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
The poll was a survey of 1,001 adults reached by landline or cell phone.
There's no serious indication at this point that either congressional leader's position is threatened if Republicans gain control of their respective chambers, but the numbers underscore the disconnect between the grassroots and the party hierarchy in an election year where the bottom-up momentum is coming from a movement almost as disillusioned by their own party as their Democratic opponents.
An indicator of that disconnect is the steady clip at which Republican voters have rejected establishment-backed candidates in primaries this year. Seven Republicans supported by National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn of Texas lost their intraparty elections, meaning there could be a bloc of lawmakers headed to the Senate who don't feel indebted to party leaders for their victories.
Further underscoring the scrutiny of GOP leadership, McConnell has faced speculation that Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., could challenge him for his leadership post, although DeMint has dismissed this. Democrats, meanwhile, have touted a handful of local press reports on GOP House candidates who have declined to publicly state their support for Boehner for speaker.
Even if the GOP doesn't win control of the House or Senate, there will still be a Republican freshman class heavily populated by movement conservatives and tea party candidates that are not beholden to leadership.
Republicans contend that having no leader associated with their party is not unusual when a party does not control the White House. But the question of who leads the Republican Party will take on a new urgency if they gain control of either chamber next year and have to shift motives from opposing President Obama's agenda to moving one of their own.
"This election is going to be a political tsunami, and there's a pretty clear road map of the issues this class will want to address," said Matt Kibbe, president of the anti-tax group FreedomWorks, which has worked closely to help organize the tea party movement and endorse conservative candidates this year. "I think what Republican leadership is going to have to do is partner with this bloc of incumbent freshmen and figure out how to move a legislative agenda," he said.
For their part, Democrats see the opportunity to try and exacerbate GOP tensions and define Republican leaders ahead of Election Day. So far, that attention has focused mostly on Boehner because GOP prospects of a takeover are far greater in the House than the Senate. "I think the Republican Party is a deeply divided party, and I think that's going to hurt them," House Majority Leader Hoyer said last week.
"Democrats are going to run all kind of ads against Boehner, but it's really not going to resonate in this climate," said John Feehery, a former congressional aide and spokesman for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.
Feehery said there's an upside to having party leaders with low visibility. "Anonymity can be your friend, too," Feehery said, "Voters aren't necessarily looking for personality, and in this election, in fact, they may be voting against personality."
For instance, Republicans with high profiles back home, including Sens. Lisa Murkowski in Alaska and Bob Bennett in Utah, were two of the GOP's primary season casualties.
As for the House minority leader, he told reporters late last week that he is prepared for the national spotlight's glare as Democrats are likely to wage a campaign similar to the negative one House Republicans targeted against House Speaker Pelosi when she took the gavel after the 2006 election.
"Comes with the territory. I can handle it," Boehner said.
This article appears in the September 25, 2010, edition of NJ Daily.