How much more can the Republicans take? Demoralized, shrinking and seemingly lacking an agenda beyond the word "no," Republicans today saw their ranks further thinned with the stunning news that Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter is switching parties and will run for reelection in 2010 as a Democrat.
Specter is worried about his own survival -- and particularly a primary challenge from the right. Many in the GOP might say good riddance.
After supporting President Obama's stimulus package, Specter was persona non grata in his own party. So it may be easy for some Republicans to conclude that they are better off without people like Arlen Specter.
But his defection is a reminder that the Republican Party continues to contract, especially outside the South, and that it appears increasingly less welcome to politicians and voters who do not consider themselves solidly conservative. Northeast Republicans have gone from an endangered species to a nearly extinct species. Republicans lost ground in the Rocky Mountains and the Midwest in the last two elections. That's no way to build a national party.
The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll shows the depth of the party's problems. Just 21 percent of those surveyed identified themselves as Republicans. That's the lowest since the fall of 1983, when just 19 percent identified themselves as Republicans. Party identification does fluctuate with events. But as a snapshot indicator, the latest figures highlight the impact of Obama's opening months on the Republican Party. From a high-water mark of 35 percent in the fall of 2003, Republicans have slid steadily to their present state of affairs. It's just not as cool to be a Republican as it once was.
The Republicans have many demographic challenges as they plot their comeback. Obama has attracted strong support from young voters and Latinos -- two keys to the future for both parties and once part of the GOP's calculation for sustaining themselves in power. Suburban voters have moved toward the Democrats. Specter can see that problem acutely in the suburbs around his home in Philadelphia home. Obama is also holding a solid advantage among independents, the proxy measure for the center or swing portion of the electorate.
Reihan Salam, co-author of "Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save America," said this week that the danger for Republicans is to believe they now represent a vast, silent majority that is waiting to reassert itself. A louder voice from a smaller cadre of supporters is not the answer, he warned. That will just prevent Republicans from reassessing their old agenda, developing new ideas and once again learning to reach out broadly.
The Post-ABC News poll points to the progress Republicans have not made since Obama was sworn in last January. The approval rating for congressional Republicans has slipped from 38 percent in February to 30 percent today. Congressional Democrats have seen their support drop too, but still remain 15 points higher than the Republicans.