Listen closely to House Republicans talk about the special election in upstate New York and you'll hear a broader theme developing for 2010. Their message: One-party rule -- in New York, Washington or elsewhere -- can lead to bad things.
"Don't let the Democrats steal this election," warned an e-mail the National Republican Congressional Committee fired off early Wednesday morning, a few hours after it became clear that a tight race between Democrat Scott Murphy and Republican Jim Tedisco would be decided by a handful of (still) uncounted votes. "We cannot allow them to manipulate electoral results to seat another tax-troubled liberal."
Are voters ever swayed by a minority party's complaints that they're being denied fair hearings or floor votes?
No one's formally charging anyone with... anything. So why are Republicans ready, willing and able to cry foul? "Anytime when you have one-party rule in the state, you're always going to be worried about making sure that all legal ballots are counted," said Guy Harrison, the NRCC executive director, at a panel discussion sponsored by the Hotline on Wednesday. "Any party is going to be very concerned."
The GOP's argument is not limited to New York's 20th Congressional District. It stretches from New York, where Democrats control Albany for the first time in decades, to scandal-plagued Illinois, to Massachusetts, where Gov. Deval Patrick (D) faces plummeting poll ratings and charges of cronyism. And Republicans hope it extends to Capitol Hill, where they say the dominant Democrats have unfairly blocked the minority party at every turn and denied Republicans any role in governing.
"Nancy Pelosi creates new Republican members every single day," Harrison said, when asked to name the GOP's biggest Democratic "boogeyman." Despite President Obama's grand show of bipartisanship, Harrison added, Pelosi refused to let Republicans participate in negotiations on the economic stimulus plan and never allowed GOP amendments to the plan to reach the floor: "She hasn't even tried to be bipartisan throughout this."
But will the GOP's argument resonate at the polls in 19 months? Are large blocs of voters ever really swayed by a minority party's complaints that they're being denied fair hearings or floor votes?
At this point, Democrats seem unfazed. "If we are running ads in November of next year talking about delivering health care for 11 million children, and the Republicans are talking about Robert's Rules of Order, I'm going to predict a pickup for our side," said Harrison's Democratic counterpart, Jon Vogel, at the Hotline forum.
"For the Republicans, there doesn't seem to have been that 'a-ha' moment of accountability where they say, 'You know, we did this wrong, we screwed up.' Instead, it's Republicans you hear most often who say 'Boy, President Bush really made big mistakes,'" said J.B. Poersch, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "Reporters say to me, 'What are you going to do when you don't have George Bush to kick around anymore?' But the question might better be, 'What are Republicans going to do when they don't have George Bush to kick around anymore?'"
Still, Harrison said Republicans can package their message into appealing talking points for his candidates next year. "Of course process is a political issue when you're shutting down the minority constantly," he said. "Nancy Pelosi every single day is making sure that the process is completely ruled by a group that's... not even reflective of her whole caucus. The liberal wing of the Democratic caucus runs everything in the House."
Republicans are, in some ways, trying to take a page from the successful playbook Democrats used in 2006 when they regained power by arguing that six years of one-party rule had created a culture of corruption, a stagnant economy and a poorly managed war in Iraq. What the Republicans currently lack, however, is the second leg of that strategy -- a dire landscape of issues that forces angry moderates to abandon an unpopular president and his party.
Until they have a Democratic record to attack, and issues that fuel a groundswell of support, their road back to power remains a long one.