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House GOP Reflects

Retreat to Feature Strategy Debate

As House Republicans convene their annual retreat today to talk message and strategy, a debate persists among GOP operatives over how to best return the party to power on Capitol Hill.

Some strategists say the party must woo independent voters and concentrate on issues important to them, such as economic matters, while others prefer the base-driven political tactics honed by Karl Rove and recently departed Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman in the past three elections.

Those Republicans espousing a more inclusive message say the results of the 2006 midterm elections repudiated the base-only strategy and signaled that if the GOP does not focus on rebuilding a governing coalition that elevates policy accomplishments above politics, they should get comfortable as the House and Senate’s minority party.

Republicans “over-catered to their base and as they over-played that, they looked less attractive to Independent voters,” former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) said Tuesday. “The independent voter is not interested in politics, he’s interested in policy. So when speaking to him, you need to speak with a policy voice, not a politics voice.”

The GOP retreat — which will run from tonight through Friday at the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay in Cambridge, Md. — is set to feature a panel discussion led by three pollsters titled “Message: you lost the moderates and independents, not the conservatives.” It is part of what is likely to be an ongoing internal debate over what cost Republicans their majority as the party looks toward 2008 and what it can do to reclaim many of the House seats it lost to Democrats on Nov. 7.

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who has advocated turning away from a base-only strategy and is an architect of the GOP’s 1994 takeover, is scheduled to address the assembled Members as a keynote speaker.

A look back at much of the data from November 2006 appears to bolster the arguments of those, like Gingrich, who believe Republicans paid attention to their base voters at the expense of independents and conservative Democrats.

In the Nov. 7 contests, Democratic turnout increased slightly from 2004 relative to the GOP turnout, giving them about a 2-point edge over Republicans, but party breakdown remained essentially static, according to the Pew Research Center.

Democrats were able to pick up 30 House seats and six Senate seats because independents overwhelmingly supported them last fall — 57 percent to 39 percent — after splitting evenly between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) during the 2004 presidential election, the center found.

Additionally, contrary to popular belief, voter participation by independents actually increases during midterm elections, whereas participation by registered Democrats and registered Republicans historically dips, according to exit polling data.

“Independents decide all elections,” Pew President Andrew Kohut said. “Given the fact that we’ve had partisan parity for a very long time, and I expect that we will continue to have it for a very long time, therefore, the winning party is the party that wins a plurality of independents.”

Dave Gilliard, a Republican strategist based in Sacramento, Calif., who steered now-Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.) to victory in last year’s hotly contested 50th district special election to replace disgraced ex-Rep. Duke Cunningham (R), said independent voters as a share of the electorate has been increasing since 2004 — a phenomenon that he said is still under way.

Gilliard described today’s independent voters as all over the map ideologically, and united only by their distrust of the two major political parties. He said lower-turnout, midterm elections used to consist of far more partisan voters than independents, making it more politically and cost effective to employ a base-driven strategy.

But he said that tact is now outdated.

“Now that independent voters have become higher-propensity voters, things have changed,” Gilliard said. “They are more important, especially in lower-turnout elections. That’s just a fact.”

Armey explained that paying more attention to independents does not mean Republicans should abandon their core principles — and he said they don’t have to. He urged them to shed the image of “earmarking pork-barreler” that they engendered in the 109th Congress and focus on bold ideas, such as addressing retirement security.

In doing so, Republicans will be in a position to prove to voters that they are tackling the nation’s important issues, while simultaneously satisfying party activists’ political desire for reform of a key government program.

“We lost our sense of boldness,” Armey said, discussing what went wrong for Republicans last year.

While no Republican operative is publicly telling Members to ignore independents, some say rushing to implement a new strategy aimed squarely at unaffiliated voters is not necessarily a recipe for success either.

Carl Forti, who recently departed the National Republican Congressional Committee after a long tenure as its chief spokesman and one of its top strategists, said the key to electoral success in House races remains tailoring individual campaigns to each district.

“Treat each district as unique,” said Forti, who is now a top operative for the presidential campaign of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R). “You can’t think doing one thing on the national level, whether aimed at independents or Republicans, will do the same thing in Connecticut vs. Alabama.”

Many Republican Members and party strategists believe they primarily lost last year because of the corruption and misconduct of a few Members, like Cunningham and former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) — and because of voter angst over the Iraq War.

Once Republicans get back “on message” and talk about cutting taxes, shrinking government and eliminating wasteful spending, the electorate will respond positively, they contend.

Mike Slanker, political director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Republicans can rebuild their governing majority, and win back independents and conservative Democrats, by returning to their core principles.

“I think we have to reassure them that we remember why we were here as Republicans,” said Slanker, who guided Rep. Jon Porter (R-Nev.) to a close re-election victory last November. “We came here for smaller government, lower taxes and less regulation … whether or not we have lost touch with that is not for me to say.

“I do not believe that our coalition is fractured,” he added. “It was a bad year. People were cranky; they weren’t happy and we were in power.”

Forti said a look back at individual Congressional campaigns in 2006 proves that all races are, in fact, local.

“The people that ran aggressive campaigns, even those in bad districts, won,” he said, ticking off the names of several Republicans from swing districts who had close calls.

Those who lost “didn’t go out and define their opponents early,” Forti said.

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