The answer may be mostly a matter of perspective, but Tuesday's results indicate that Republicans especially need to re-examine their message, their messengers or both if they hope to regain national dominance any time soon.
If the rest of America were like Allen County, the GOP's glass would be overflowing. As county Chairman Steve Shine told the party's annual post-election luncheon Wednesday, State Superintendent of Education Tony Bennett was the only Republican on the ballot not to carry Allen County. And that included Richard Mourdock, soundly defeated in the U.S. Senate race now held by Republican Richard Lugar.
If the rest of the country mirrored Allen County, a very liberal Democratic president hounded by recent foreign-policy setbacks, a weak economy and other potential millstones would not have won. The GOP would not have lost influence in the U.S. Senate, and several tea party-backed House members would not have lost. Voters in two states would not have legalized recreational marijuana use, and in two others would not have broken a 32-state streak by authorizing same-sex marriage.
But with numerous polls showing that conservatives outnumber liberals by a two-to-one margin nationwide, what explains the GOP's inability to translate supposed philosophical support into votes?
“The party has to do some introspection,” said Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at IPFW. More specifically, Downs said Republicans need to decide whether “conservatism” is primarily defined in economic terms or whether it also – perhaps even primarily – encompasses such divisive social issues as abortion and gay rights.
As Downs noted, Republican Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller – largely perceived as apolitical – handily won re-election while the confrontational, tea party-backed Mourdock did not. Governor-elect Mike Pence is a fiscal and social conservative but largely avoided controversy during his campaign.
The boring, play-it-safe Mitt Romney was hardly a right-winger, however, and lost anyway. Downs suspects Romney was hurt by the long, bitter and expensive Republic primary process and several campaign gaffes, but the Tea Party News Network blamed Romney's demise on his lack of true conservative credentials.
“I eagerly await the day the GOP establishment figures out that the 'safe' candidates are not getting the job done,” Director Scott Hughes said in a statement.
The obvious inference from Downs' comments is that the Republican Party would be more successful by downplaying social issues, stressing fiscal conservatism and finding candidates able and willing to articulate those positions in an appealing, non-threatening way. But can the GOP really do that and remain true to its core principles?
Shine isn't convinced such a dramatic makeover will be necessary because, after all, the glass is still nearly half full.
“We are always working to add people to our party: young people, women. We need to educate people (about where we stand),” he said.
But like it or not, support for illegal immigration, the growing welfare state, gay rights and other issues anathema to conservatives appears to be growing. If the GOP cannot “educate” voters into changing their positions, the party will have to evolve – or risk losing influence in all but the “reddest” of areas.
With the notable exception of abortion — the right to life being guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence – Republicans would do well to concentrate on economics, governance and the cultivation of dynamic and appealing candidates and leave the social and moral issues to the church. Mixing the two helped torpedo Mourdock, after all, and some conservatives scare even me when their evangelical zeal seems to confuse the presidency with the papacy.
“It has been sad to see supposed Christian leaders like . . . Billy Graham . . . sell out the faith by telling Biblical Christians that there was nothing wrong with voting for a man whose satanic cult . . . leads souls to hell,” wrote Internet evangelist Bill Keller. Keller couldn't bring himself to support Obama or the Mormon Romney, so he urged his flock to write in “Jesus” for president. He claims that more than 2 million people pledged to do just that – votes Romney could have used.
It's been said that people get the government they deserve. That is true today, sadly, for any number of reasons.