At the Democrats' official election night party in Washington, D.C., all eyes were on Florida—for about 10 seconds. At 8 p.m. network exit polls confirmed that Rep. Katherine Harris, for this crowd the arch-villain of the 2000 election, was lopsidedly losing her bid for a Senate seat. The partygoers cheered the news. Then they turned their attention to races that carried at least a whiff of suspense.
They shouldn't have dismissed Florida so quickly. Less than two years earlier, the Sunshine State had shown the first symptoms of the malady that would defeat the GOP in races from California to New Hampshire. Republicans had convinced themselves that socially conservative "values voters" were the key to maintaining and extending their power. It was in Florida that the strategy started to crumble, reminding any politician who cared to listen that a lot of voters just want the government to leave them alone.
The town of Pinellas Park, not far from Harris' old House district, contains the hospice where Terri Schiavo died. The battle between the brain-damaged woman's parents, who wanted to keep her on life support, and her husband, who wanted to remove it, had bubbled up into Florida's Republican-controlled legislature before. But in March 2005, emboldened by the GOP's 2004 victories, Tom DeLay's House and Bill Frist's Senate elbowed into the controversy. President Bush broke off a stint in Crawford, Texas, to sign emergency legislation to keep the feeding tube attached.
It was one of the worst political miscalculations of the decade. Immediately after the Schiavo push, approval numbers for Bush and his party started to plummet. Polls showed not just Democrats but Republicans and independents opposed to the Schiavo intervention. Republicans responded by assuming the polls were wrong. The country had re-elected them, hadn't it? Of course voters were foursquare behind the idea of legislatively re-attaching a feeding tube to a brain-dead woman.
The president's ratings reeled into the 40s, then the 30s, and never really recovered. The numbers for the GOP Congress fell even further. And on election night, voters turned out the most socially conservative Congress in decades while taking a two-by-four to socially conservative initiatives in the states. A ban on all abortions was defeated in South Dakota. Missouri legalized stem cell research. And while seven states passed gay marriage bans, Arizona became the first state ever to reject one. In most of the states where the bans did pass—South Carolina and Idaho being the exceptions—voters elected Democrats to major statewide offices anyway. The ballyhooed effect of gay marriage bans on conservative turnout, credited by some for George W. Bush's 2004 victory in Ohio, fell utterly flat.
These defeats wouldn't have come as a surprise if not for the consensus, minted hours after the 2004 polls closed, that Republicans were building a permanent majority on the backs of conservative evangelicals. The TV networks' exit poll showed 22 percent of voters naming "moral values" as the key to their ballots. In the hands of a Republican caucus defined by the born-again Tom DeLay in the House and the big-government conservative Rick Santorum in the Senate, this was a mandate; it encouraged them to indulge their invasiveness on privacy and other civil liberties issues. The party didn't just support national ID cards and warrantless wiretaps. With impunity, it campaigned against Democrats for opposing those measures.
Early in the 2006 cycle, Democrats spotted the opening they'd been given. They recruited candidates for every Republican seat in districts that had voted for John Kerry over George W. Bush, and they started to criticize the conduct, and sometimes the very fact, of the Iraq war. They got multiple adrenaline boosts from the GOP's scandals, starting with the corruption allegations against DeLay, which the leadership took pains to overlook until he was actually indicted. They maintained leads as the incumbents cupped their hands over their eyes and ears and refused to consider any shifts in their approach to Iraq.
That strategy ended on November 7, with the defeat of many hot-button ballot measures and with heavy losses in House, Senate, and state races. The liberal Northeast was scrubbed almost clean of Republicans: From Pennsylvania through Maine, the Democrats picked up nine or 10 House seats. (At press time, one race in Connecticut was going to a recount.) And the rout continued in the Midwest and the Plains. Four years earlier Kansas had elected an ultra-conservative attorney general named Phill Kline, who used the power of his office to snoop into the medical records of patients at abortion clinics. He was crushed, 58 percent to 42 percent, by a Republican who switched parties to challenge him. And while Kline went down, Republicans lost an eastern Kansas House seat in a district that had
voted for Bush over Kerry by 20 points.
There were lessons in the races the Republicans did win too. In the Mountain West, Republican candidates had their margins slashed dramatically. Idaho's 1st District, which gave Bush 70 percent of its vote, handed only 50 percent to a doctrinaire conservative. Wyoming's sole House seat gave its Republican incumbent a win by less than 1 percentage point. In state after state, Republican support plunged.
"The libertarian West," Hotline Editor Chuck Todd wrote in a post-election column, "is a region that is more up for grabs than it should be. And it's because the Republican Party has grown more religious and more pro-government, which turns off these 'leave me alone,' small-government libertarian Republicans."
The decline isn't entirely the Republicans' fault. They just created an opening for their opponents to exploit. The Democrats in the libertarian West, tenderized by the wipeouts of the 1990s, reassessed their positions on the Second Amendment, public land, and taxes, and reintroduced themselves to voters. In the Bush years, they gave stronger support to civil liberties than most of their Republican competitors. At one Montana debate, GOP Sen. Conrad Burns lambasted Democrat Jon Tester for wanting to "weaken" the PATRIOT Act. Tester shot back that he didn't want to weaken it: "I want to repeal it." Tester won the election.
Of course, the PATRIOT Act isn't a "social issue." That's part of the point. The Bush-Rove iteration of the Republican Party, with its tight focus on social issues and its coordination with religious groups to turn out votes, fell dramatically short with an electorate for whom other subjects had more salience. In future elections, that skeptical segment of the country will only grow larger. The libertarian states of Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada are growing as the Deep South and the Rust Belt stagnate. And young professionals in Republican killing fields like Virginia and Ohio are getting more socially liberal, not less.
Election-night spinners tried to argue that the new congressional class consists of "conservative Democrats." But while the newly elected Democrats include several relatively libertarian supporters of the Second Amendment, even their most conservative members, such as Pennsylvania's senator-elect Bob Casey Jr., support the morning-after pill and some stem cell research.
The GOP's fundamentalist myopia, combined with its sorry record on spending and corruption, has made Grover Norquist's "Leave Us Alone Coalition" a bloc that's up for grabs. In Norquist's formulation, the coalition includes "taxpayers who want the government to reduce the tax burden, property owners, farmers, and homeowners who want their property rights respected." Voters like these are now willing to entertain alternatives to a Southern-dominated, religious GOP.
They proved that in Pennsylvania, where Casey felled Rick Santorum—the only senator who actually flew down to Florida to join the Pinellas Park circus—in an 18-point landslide. On Election Day, the Philadelphia Inquirer found a voter willing to explain why Santorum lost. "I don't know what happened to him," said Roby Lentz, a Republican. "He quit representing me when he showed up at Terri Schiavo's bedside."
David Weigel (email@example.com) is an assistant editor of Reason.