For the first time since their 2006 election drubbing, top Republicans see signs — however faint — of a political resurgence over the next year.
At first blush, this sounds absurd. After all, polls show the GOP more unpopular than ever, and the John Ensign sex scandal serves as a vivid, real-time reminder of why many see the party as a collection of hypocrites.
But several trends suggest this optimism might not be as far-fetched as it seems.
Polls show that the GOP is wise to focus most of its attacks on spending, government intervention and job losses. (Those same polls show the public has low regard for Republicans on these issues, but it's a significant development that President Barack Obama's numbers are slipping in these areas, too.) And just as importantly, GOP leaders on Capitol Hill privately recognize the need to distance themselves a bit from George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich — even though they've done poor job of doing so thus far.
This combination of exploiting the unpopular parts of the Democratic Party and moving beyond the unpopular parts of their own is a start. But it will take a lot more to undo years of self-inflicted damage during the Bush years.
Here's a look at why a GOP comeback is plausible, and why the Republicans could easily blow it.
How the Republicans Could Come Back
A red state
Polls show that Obama's chief vulnerability is public concern over the soaring deficit. And as the sticker shock of a trillion-dollar-plus health care plan takes hold, these concerns are only likely to grow.
Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) — long used to hearing complaints about Bush — says his moderate constituents have finally found something else to gripe about. "Now the dominant thing I hear from them is: 'What is all this government spending?'" said Kirk, who is mulling a Senate run next year.
Squabbling over much else, Republicans are emboldened and united on this issue. In the House, they banded together last week to oppose a supplemental war funding bill because it included $5 billion for the International Monetary Fund — what one GOP member called a "global bailout." They are gearing up to oppose Democratic plans to increase domestic spending this summer and fall.
Yes, this approach is more than a tad hypocritical. Under Bush, Republicans vastly expanded the size of government and whacked Democrats when they opposed war funding. But memories fade fast in politics, especially in this era of turbo-charged media.
And, as is key in political debates, Republicans have distilled their argument down to a bumper sticker slogan: "President Obama spends too much, taxes too much and borrows too much."
Expect to hear that refrain in upcoming spending fights — and with regularity in the midterm elections.
Obama promised his stimulus plan would keep unemployment below 10 percent, and some of his advisers said it would remain below 8 percent. But now the president himself says it will hit 10 percent this year.
The administration's technique of incorporating "jobs saved" into its accounting is being met with increased skepticism — and is unlikely to resonate if unemployment lines run long.
"I think his biggest vulnerability right now is that unemployment is going to exceed 10 percent and be there for some time," said House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.). "The stimulus bill was meant to sustain and create new jobs. And it hasn't done it."
Beyond the Beltway, many states aren't feeling the impact of the stimulus. According to the Labor Department, 48 states saw worsened economic conditions in May. And eight states — including population giants Florida and California — saw record unemployment rates.
Forget every article you've read about just what policy reforms or new leaders the GOP needs to cme back. If this economy is worse off a year from now, that is what Republicans will run on. In politics, the resurrection of the out party almost always comes from the failure or excesses of the in party.
"The voters are likely to use Republicans as a check" in 2010, said former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.). "Even if they don't fully support us, they can give Republicans a protest vote."
The emerging GOP strategy: Bet on Obama's failure.
"This is Obama's and [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi's economy now," said Cantor. "This will translate into an anti-incumbent mood a year and a half from now."
With polls showing growing public unease with government intervention, Republicans are certain to spend the next 17 months reminding voters of the bailouts that don't work.
There's a lot of potential ammunition there: Nearly $20 billion in bailouts for Chrysler, $49.5 billion for General Motors, $13.5 billion for GMAC Financial Services, $46 billion for Citigroup and a whopping $167.5 billion for American International Group.
Keep a close eye on the auto bailouts in particular. It will be easy to measure whether Obama's intervention saved two household names or wasted taxpayer money. And voters are watching: A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found 69 percent of Americans said they're concerned about the government's stake in GM.
Nothing motivates political activists like the loathing of the other side. During the final Bush years, it fueled a Democratic resurgence in fundraising, organizing and turnout and set the stage for an Obama win. Polls show increasing intensity in Republican disapproval of Obama, and GOP leaders tell POLITICO they expect this to translate into more intense support in terms of grass-roots assistance and donations.
Meantime, without a bogeyman in the White House, Democrats are seeing the flip side of this dynamic. One prominent Democratic told POLITICO that organizers had a very difficult time raising money for last week's fundraiser for House and Senate Democratic candidates — even with Obama as the headliner.
"Selling a take-back is much easier than selling a keep-us-here," he said. "It's fear in fundraising that raises money."
"What you have to understand is that Bush is gone," said Davis, "and a lot of the energy Democrats got was against Bush. So their energy source is gone. That evens us up from Day One."
There is no doubt things could get worse for the GOP, especially in the Senate, and especially if Democrats charge into the 2010 elections with a popular Obama leading the way.
But in the House, there just aren't many more seats that the Republicans can lose because of the bipartisan effort to draw seats that protect incumbents.
As Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) will tell you, there are now 83 House Democrats in districts Bush carried in 2004, compared with just five Republicans in districts that Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) won that year.
The congressional Democrats who picked up GOP seats in the South and in the heartland in 2006 and 2008 ran against something, not as acolytes of a new liberal agenda. Now they may find themselves on the defensive against Republicans who will argue that they're part of a ruling party that's out of step with their districts.
"They've overextended on the number of seats they have," said McCarthy. "These members can't keep voting 90-percent-plus of the time with Pelosi and expect to get elected."
How the Republicans Could Blow It
They kill themselves — and their own
Republicans are often their most effective enemies. When they aren't trying to push the Colin Powells of the world out of their party for failing ideological purity tests, they're busy failing their purity tests themselves.
The list is long and keeps getting longer. John Ensign (R-Nev.), an outspoken family-alues Christian, admits an affair with a staffer and a sordid financial relationship with her family. Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), another conservative, destroys his political career with a foot tap in the men's room. Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), another Christian conservative, admits "a very serious sin" after his name turns up in the D.C. Madam's phone records.
You get the point.
Remember: Democrats made as much progress in 2006 out of GOP scandals as they did from GOP policy failures. But if Republicans keep matching their Democratic counterparts in the sin and vice department, they'll be hard-pressed to ride a wave of scandal-fatigue back to majority status.
They have no leader — and won't for a while
Without a leader at the top of their party — and no real chance of having one before 2012 — the Republicans most likely to get the attention are those who say the most outrageous things. And Limbaugh, Cheney, Gingrich and Palin are winning that battle right now.
This is hardly good news for a party that desperately needs to move beyond its base. Several GOP aides told us they wish all four would shuffle off to an undisclosed location while the party repairs its brand.
Wrong side of history?
Many top Republicans acknowledge privately that the conservative line on issues such as climate change, gay rights and immigration is increasingly out of sync with where the country is headed. But with Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman dispatched to China as Obama's ambassador, there is no prominent Republican figure making the case that the party needs to change its stand on cultural issues.
And much to the delight of the Democrats, there's no Republican version of the Democratic Leadership Council — an entity to push to the party away from its base on some hot-button issues and toward the middle after a series of losses.
So there is an increasingly wide gap between party elites and the GOP rank and file. The former group, made up mostly of top strategists and staffers, is passionate about the need to moderate but is mostly quiet about it. The party base is determined to stick to its guns — and is anything but silent about it. And with many of these conservatives packed into states with key early presidential primaries, GOP White House aspirants are loath to make a stand for moderation.
The country is getting increasingly less white — and that might be the biggest problem facing the GOP right now. Ronald Reagan could afford to suffer losses among blacks and Hispanics and still win. John McCain couldn't. As The New York Times' John Harwood recently noted, McCain won the same percentage of the white vote that Ronald Reagan did in 1980 — and lost.
No matter how you cut the numbers, they're devastating for the GOP. Consider this fact from Gallup: Since 2001, Republicans have lost votes in every demographic group except churchgoers. And the party is sucking for air among young voters; Obama beat McCain by 35 points among voters under the age of 30.
If Republicans don't find a way to appeal to future generations of voters soon, they could be lost for decades; research shows that if young voters support the same party in three consecutive elections, they're likely to keep doing so for the rest of their lives.
"We can't go through another presidential election where we lose the youth, lose women and lose minorities and think we're going to get to a majority," said McCarthy.
Obama plays to strength
This White House is as political as any this city has seen. The president and his aides seem well-aware of the political dangers of appearing too liberal on issues such as gay rights and terrorism. They are happy, or at least content, to read stories about how liberals are upset with them on a host of these issues.
They may be vulnerable on big issues — jobs, the economy, natinal security — but they make few mistakes on those issues they can control. They are very focused on appealing to the broad middle of the country, especially in those 80-plus red-leaning districts they hold, and they unabashedly use every lever of White House power to bolster their party's political prospects. It was Rahm Emanuel, don't forget, who helped win back the House majority by recruiting and winning with candidates in many of those swing districts.
"The most important thing Democrats have done to make themselves the majority party is recruit candidates in different parts of the country who are competitive because they don't agree with their party on 100 percent of the party plank," said former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie.
Obama is also methodically trying to pick off moderate Republicans who could compete against Democrats. To wit: Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Huntsman and Army Secretary nominee John McHugh, as well as Sen. Judd Gregg and Rep. Peter King, who were offered administration jobs but turned them down.
Abby Phillip contributed to this story.