America’s New Third Party

The Republican Party once had a real shot at winning the support of Jewish voters. The cosmopolitan wing of the party led the way, in Northeastern states like New York and New Jersey, and in California. Now that element of the party is in desperate straits.

While Jews generally register as Democrats, they have often voted for moderate Republicans. Growing up in New Jersey, I remember Republican Sen. Clifford Case and New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. California Jews will listen to moderate Republicans, too, as shown by Jews who voted for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and, before him, Mayor Richard Riordan in Los Angeles. But Republican moderates in Democratic states are now the first casualties of the national shift to the Democrats.

The Republicans became dominant when their moderate cosmopolitan wing absorbed Southern white conservatives. But now, moderates have become marginalized, and the Republican Party as a whole is in danger of becoming more like a regional third party tied together by ideology than a real second party ready to build a governing majority. 

The Republican Party, on public view during the economic stimulus debate, is moving further and further away from the party that once appealed to Jews. Despite the recent smashing electoral defeat, which was largely fought on economic issues, every House Republican voted against the stimulus plan.

This disconnect has been years in the making. Newt Gingrich, in the 1990s, and Karl Rove, a decade later, created a Republican base that watches its own cable news network, listens to right-wing talk radio and thinks the rest of us are crazy. House Republicans recently called on Joe the Plumber to advise them on the economic stimulus. Polls show that independent voters, a reliable barometer of winning majorities, now resemble Democrats much more than they do Republicans.

The party’s strength is now in the South and in the nonindustrial Midwest. Where unions are weak, Republicans still do well. But the states where Republicans today are strong are places where there are few Jewish voters. In the areas where Jews live, Democrats are moving from strength toward dominance. 

The states with the largest Jewish populations are New York, California, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Illinois, Maryland and Texas. Obama carried nine of those 10 states. He swept the Northeast and the industrial Midwest. Norm Coleman, Jewish Republican of Minnesota, is about to be replaced by Al Franken, a Jewish Democrat. (Coleman has already been hired as a consultant by the Republican Jewish Coalition.) Obama picked up three outer Southern states: North Carolina and the increasingly cosmopolitan Florida and Virginia.

The Southern base’s power to control the party was shown in the Senate vote on the auto bailout late last year. Southern Republican senators from “right to work” states led the charge against saving the auto industry and prevailed over an alliance of the Bush White House and Democrats. Ten Republicans voted for the bailout, most from outside the South, deepening the schism. Yet the Republican abandonment of the more moderate heart of the industrial Midwest is going to cause severe long-term damage to the party’s national future.

With a Democrat now in the White House, only a handful of Republicans are so far willing to break party ranks. Four Senate Republicans (Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and George Voinovich of Ohio) voted against a Republican amendment that would have stripped virtually all spending out of the proposed stimulus bill and substituted tax cuts. Only three of the four (minus Voinovich) pledged to vote for the economic stimulus plan itself. Two Republican governors spoke up for the stimulus: Schwarzenegger of California and Charlie Crist from Florida, governors of two big cosmopolitan states. Four Southern Republican governors announced their opposition to the plan. Sarah Palin played it both ways, first lobbying for Alaska’s share of the stimulus and then joining the Republican governors in opposition.

While Republicans feel surrounded by victorious Democrats, the even tinier moderate wing of the party is itself surrounded by angry conservatives. If it is tough to be a Republican in D.C., it is even harder to be a Republican moderate in the party ranks. The cudgel of a conservative primary opponent causes heartburn. When the shrewd Specter, who had nearly been defeated by a conservative in the 2004 Republican primary, was worried about a primary opponent a month ago, he attacked Attorney General nominee Eric Holder. When he heard that his primary opponent had backed out, he was again free to move back to the center to protect his flank in a general election with an electorate that is highly supportive of Obama.

For most congressional Republicans, primary threats are more unnerving than anything Obama or the Democratic leadership can say or do. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who had joined the centrist negotiations on the stimulus bill, has to consider the real threat of a Sarah Palin primary challenge in 2010. John McCain’s all-out assault on the Obama economic plan may have been incited by rumors of a primary opponent in Arizona in 2010. And nobody wants to annoy Rush Limbaugh, as shown by one congressman’s groveling to the radio host after mildly criticizing him. So Democratic alliances will have to be with Republicans who do not fear a primary challenge and need to consider Democratic voters in the general election.

In short, the remnants of the Jewish-friendly wing of the Republican Party are pretty nervous. Those Republicans who have the best chance nationally face an uphill struggle in the party. Take Crist, for instance. Here is what he told The New York Times Magazine: “I do support [stem cell research]. I think it is common sense to pay attention to what is happening in science. My father is a physician, my sister is a physician, and I try to be enlightened on things that might extend and create productive life.” Sounds like a good vice presidential pick in 2008, as Collins or Snowe would have been. But all would have had trouble with the base.

There is no way to know whether these trends will continue, or if the entropy of the Republican Party will be reversed. For the near future, though, we are likely to see an ascendant Democratic majority dealing with a largely unified, aggressive and at times effective ideological opponent whose determination and intensity mask a profound electoral weakness in national politics.

Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton, is the 2008 Fulbright Tocqueville Distinguished Chair in American Studies at the University of Paris VIII. He writes a monthly column for The Journal.