In some of the largest, smallest, reddest and bluest states in the nation, many state Republican organizations are still reeling in the aftermath of the devastating 2006 election cycle, raising questions about how much grassroots help the state parties will be able to deliver to presumptive GOP nominee John McCain.
The state party woes are especially ill-timed since McCain will face a Democratic nominee who may be considerably better funded and organized, and since Republicans will be facing an energized Democratic party that is shattering primary election turnout records.
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“After twelve years of being in power, you tend to get fat and lazy, and in some cases arrogant with respect to your positions,” said Saul Anuzis, chairman of the Michigan Republican party. “There is no doubt that we have had people who have gotten caught up in both illegal activities and immoral activities and none of that helps the party as a whole.
“If you go back to 2006 most people would agree that not only did we lose our brand, that we damaged our brand significantly,” Anuzis said. “We are clearly rebuilding.”
Nowhere is that clearer than in two of the nation’s largest states, California and New York.
According to figures compiled by the California secretary of state’s office, the number of registered Republicans there has dropped by roughly 207,000 since October 2006. At the end of January, California’s Republican party was in the red, with $3.2 million cash on hand but more than $3.4 million in debts. California Democrats, by contrast, had $5.5 million in the bank and just $83,000 in debts.
Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has clashed with conservatives in his party, used Hollywood terminology to paint a dire picture last fall at a state party convention.
“We are dying at the box office,” Schwarzenegger said. “We are not filling the seats.”
In New York, the situation is equally dismal. After a devastating 2006 election cycle marked by a Democratic statewide office sweep for the first time since 1938 and a Republican nominee who failed to win even 30 percent of the vote, Democrats are now within two seats of wresting a state Senate majority from the GOP, which would give Democrats control of the whole of New York government for the first time since 1934.
A January 2008 state Board of Elections report shows the state Democratic party took in $491,302 and had closing balance of $1.4 million. Republicans, by contrast, took in $26,000 and had a closing balance of $395,000.
In the separate “housekeeping” accounts that the New York parties use to pay for headquarters and staff and general party-building activities, Democrats reported receipts of $454,000 to the Republicans’ $66,000.
Few expect that either New York or California will be competitive in the presidential election. But in considerably smaller and more competitive New Hampshire and Arkansas, for example, the state Republican parties are just beginning to dig out from under the 2006 landslide.
In New Hampshire, where the state GOP has been driven by a dispute between moderates and conservatives, the state Democratic party took in four times as much money as its Republican counterpart in 2007. At the end of the most recent reporting period in February, the state GOP reported just $64,000 cash on hand to the Democrats’ $159,000.
In Arkansas, where Republicans lost the governrship in 2006 and are outnumbered in the state House and Senate by 3-1 margins, state GOP Chairman Dennis Milligan said he is facing defections and malaise.
“Independent conservative individuals just said they were fed up and they said there is no difference [between the two parties],” Milligan said. “We have sent out the message that we are now different. We know it did not fall down in one day and it won’t be rebuilt in one day.”
Even in some of the reddest states in the nation, Republicans have faced dispiriting news. As if Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius’ easy 2006 re-election victory wasn’t insult enough in heavily Republican Kansas, she won with a running mate who was more than a little familiar to the state GOP—Mark Parkinson, the former state Republican chairman, who switched parties to run as her lieutenant governor.
Just four years earlier, Parkinson had exclaimed that “any Republican who supports Kathleen Sebelius for governor is either insincere or uninformed.” Sebelius is now frequently mentioned as a prospective vice presidential nominee.
Most recently it was the Alaska Republican party airing its dirty laundry.
Just over a week ago, at the state Republican convention, the lieutenant governor shocked his party colleagues by announcing a primary challenge to veteran Congressman Don Young, who is under federal investigation. The state’s senior senator, Republican Ted Stevens, is also under federal investigation.
At the same event, GOP Gov. Sarah Palin, who is at odds with the state party, called for changes in leadership in the wake of a series of scandals that have tainted the party. An attempt to oust GOP Chairman Randy Ruedrich fell just short.
“We are not a unified group as we once were,” said Republican John Harris, the Speaker of the Alaska House. “Between Congressman Young and Senator Stevens, and our governor seems to throw out comments periodically about the ethical operation of the state … internally, that fuels the fire constantly.”
“Democrats don’t have to do that much to keep it alive. We keep it alive ourselves,” he added. “That breaks down morale.”
While Alaska Republicans were battling among themselves at their convention, roughly a dozen Republican state chairmen met in Las Vegas --the first gathering of its kind in recent memory, according to one of the chairmen who attended.
Formally, the purpose was to exchange ideas on “improving each state party’s performance,” said Sean McCaffrey, the executive director of the Arizona Republican party.?? But there was widespread concern expressed over the direction of the party as a whole.
Even that effort to strengthen the individual state parties fell short of the mark. With the exception of Florida, no Southern chairmen were in attendance. Many, it seems, were uncomfortable with the symbolism of meeting inside a Las Vegas hotel the same weekend as Palm Sunday.
“That’s a real problem with the Republican party that they went to a casino on Palm Sunday,” said one GOP state party chairman, who refused to come due to the timing.
“Here we are the values party,” the chairman added. “You’ve got to walk the walk here. If you don’t, you’re going to lose. You can’t disaffect your base.”