Divide, Suppress and Conquer: The GOP's 25% Strategy for 2006
As Tuesday's vote approaches, Democrats are buoyantly optimistic about their prospects for retaking control of Congress. President Bush is wildly unpopular. His handling of Iraq, the election's dominant issue, is backed by less than a third of the electorate. On issue after issue, voters across the United States support Democratic positions. And in generic Congressional polls, a majority of Americans consistently prefer Democrats over Republicans.
Almost none of which matters for the Republican braintrust. For the GOP, 2006 isn't a popularity contest. The Republican strategy for victory hinges on turning out their base while ensuring potential Democratic voters stay home.
Call it "Divide, Suppress and Conquer."
Americans Heart Democrats
On Sunday, it was Vice President Cheney who best summed up the problem for Republicans' in 2006, "It may not be popular with the public." While Cheney was discussing Iraq, his conclusion could apply almost across the board for the GOP.
Republican woes start in the White House. President Bush's approval ratings remain mired in the 30's, with CNN on Monday reporting an abysmal 35%. Last week, the New York Times reported only 29% of Americans back the White House on Iraq, the single most important issue in the mid-term elections according to a host of recent opinion surveys. Democrats are now viewed by Americans as the party best able to handle both the chaos in Iraq and the overall terror threat.
The public's preference for Democrats extends across the gamut of domestic issues as well. On abortion, stem cell research, Social Security and health care, Americans (often by wide margins) endorse progressive positions generally held by Democrats. Even with strong GDP growth and recent declines in the unemployment rate, Americans prefer Democratic stewardship of the economy by 54% to 37%. 61% of Americans in a recent USA Today poll claimed the country was on "the wrong track." Throw in Jack Abramoff and the Mark Foley scandals and the result is an overwhelming preference for Democratic control of Congress that even Fox News surveyed at 49 to 36%.
The GOP 25% Strategy: An Overview
But none of that may matter on Tuesday. That's because Republicans only care about the "half of the half" that actually vote in mid-term elections. (While analysts predict heightened voter interest in 2006, it is worth remembering actual midterm turnout in 2002 was a dismal 39.5%; in 1998, a pathetic 38.1%.) That's where the GOP's 25% Strategy comes in.
The Republican 25% Strategy of divide, suppress and conquer is simple. First, fire up the base with red meat issues, while using the proven conservative "distribution" channel of churches and single issue advocacy groups to get them to the polls. Second, drive down the participation of potential Democratic and independent voters through curbs on registration, onerous new ID requirements, and polling place eligibility challenges. Last but certainly not least for the Republican party of Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman, when in doubt, just cheat.
Red Meat for Red Staters: Turning On, Turning Out the Base
The Rove strategy begins with mobilizing the conservative base with plentiful heapings of red meat. By defining the hated and the heathen, Rove, Ken Mehlman and the RNC will count on the intensity of the Christian conservatives to deliver for the GOP in 2006, just as they did in 2004.
The GOP's Congressional leadership did their part, unveiling their 2006 platform of "fags, flags and fetusus" last fall. A flag burning amendment, a same-sex marriage constitutional ban, and a fetal pain bill topped the supposed "American Values Agenda" of Dennis Hastert and Bill Frist. That each of the overwhelmingly unpopular measures failed to advance through Congress is beside the point; along with the 8 state ballot initiatives banning same-sex marriage and the ongoing war on "activist judges," they were designed precisely to motivate the hardest of the Republican hard core.
And the boy trouble of Mark Foley and Ted Haggard notwithstanding, Rove's base building bets seem like good ones. The Democrats simply have no "distribution channel" like the Republicans' network of churches and single issue groups to deliver voters to the polls. Rove delivered his much-touted four million new evangelical voters to the polls in 2004, voters who backed George Bush by 3 to 1 over John Kerry. For Rove and Mehlman, the religious right is both the medium and the message. And the GOP's unequaled "72 Hour Task Force" promises to deliver them on Election Day.
But given the numbers, the GOP can't win in 2006 if Democrats and independents show up to vote. That's where the Republicans multi-pronged strategy of voter suppression comes in.
The first pillar of the Republican 25% Strategy has been to erect barriers to the registration of new voters. Less affluent, African-Americans and especially Hispanic voters represent an untapped pool of new Democratic supporters. Republicans aim to keep in that way.
GOP efforts to block a populist wave of new Democrats started with opposition to "motor voter" laws in the 1980's and 1990's. Designed to make voter registration as easy as getting a driver's license or registering a vehicle at your local DMV, motor voter laws were mandated by the 1993 National Voter Registration Act signed by President Clinton. Republicans at the national and state level, famously including GOP Governor Kirk Fordice in Mississippi, tried to block motor voter implementation. Even today, the Texas Republican party platform calls for the repeal of motor voter laws, a position shared with those frequenting arch-conservative watering holes such as Free Republic and Town Hall.
Down but not out, Republicans have turned to a new generation of more sophisticated – and insidious – tactics to blunt new voter registration. In Florida, the GOP in 2004 built on its successful voter roll purges of 2000 with a new approach. Simply put, Jeb Bush and the Republicans wanted to make registering voters too risky and too expensive for the parties and grassroots advocacy organizations. Signed registration forms not submitted within 10 days would generate a $250 fine. The fine would jump to $5,000 per person for each form lost, missing or otherwise not submitted. It's no wonder that Florida League of Women Voters, with its $16,000 program budget, was forced to cease voter registration efforts. It's also no wonder that a federal judge struck down the odious Florida law in August, agreeing with attorney Craig Siegel that "the law would have imposed a tax on democracy and a tax on democratic participation."
The GOP's ID Fraud
Not content to prevent the enfranchisement of new voters, the GOP is committed to blocking their exercise of the right to vote. At the both the state and federal level, the GOP in the name of battling fraud has put up a raft of new roadblocks and barriers to voting with burdensome voter identification requirements.
The fact that voter fraud in the United States is virtually non-existent doesn't derail Republicans in their quest to block access to the ballot box. Just this year, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission issued a report refuting the myth of fraud at polling places. "There is widespread but not unanimous agreement," the report concluded, "that there is little polling place fraud, or at least much less than is claimed, including voter impersonation, "dead" voters, noncitizen voting and felon voters."
The result is a host of new state laws advanced by Republicans with the transparent aim of suppressing the potential Democratic - and especially black - vote. As Perrspectives reported previously, Georgia's onerous new voter ID card program requiring voters to visit one of the state's limited number of offices, would have trimmed up to 150,000 people (primarily African-Americans and the elderly) from the rolls. (The bill's sponsor, Augusta Republican Sue Burmeister explained that when black voters in her black precincts "are not paid to vote, they don't go to the polls.") Versions of the Georgia law have been ruled unconstitutional twice by federal judge Harold Murphy. And while Indiana's new voter ID law and the milder version in Arizona have to date withstood judicial scrutiny, another measure in Missouri similar to that in Georgia has been blocked during the 2006 elections. In his rebuke to the state of Missouri, Judge Richard Callahan deemed the right to vote "a right and not a license."
An added layer of electoral security for Republicans comes in the form of redistricting. Especially in the wake of the 2000 election, the GOP was quick to enshrine its Congressional majority by leveraging its new found control of state houses and legislatures nationwide.
Nowhere was this truer than in Texas, where Tom Delay successfully engineered an an unheard of mid-term redistricting in 2002. Coming only two years after a federal judge in 2001 ruled on a new district map reflecting the results of the 2000 U.S. Census, Tom Delay and the GOP-controlled Texas legislature took the unprecedented step of redrawing the boundaries to ensure a solid Republican Congressional delegation. The new map produced a 21-11 Republican majority in 2004, a sweeping change from the 17-15 Democratic edge previously. (In June, the Supreme Court in a 7-2 decision largely upheld the Texas redistricting plan.)
It is worth noting that Democrats have at times been their own worst enemies when it comes to redistricting. Eager to please African-American and Hispanic activists, Democrats have frequently supported the creation of "majority-minority" districts. While adding diversity to Congress, these boundary changes often drain Democratic voters from suburban districts and help to enable a Republican lock on many outlying metropolitan races. (In Shaw v. Reno and other cases in the 1990's, the Supreme Court took a dim view of "irregularly shaped voting districts drawn by legislatures to concentrate minority voters and to boost their political clout.")
Old Dog, New Dirty Tricks
When all else fails in suppressing the potential Democratic vote, Republicans do what they best: cheat.
In 2000, 2002 and 2004, the Republicans proved themselves worthy heirs to Richard Nixon when it comes to dirty tricks. Of course, there were the purged voter rolls in Florida. In 2002, an election day GOP phone jamming operation in New Hampshire apparently directed from the White House succeeded in propelling Republican John Sununu to the Senate. In Kenneth Blackwell's Ohio, predominantly minority voters in Cleveland and Columbus had their registrations challenged, were instructed to go to the wrong polling places, and ultimately faced long lines and too few voting machines. And in Wisconsin and South Carolina, minority residents were threatened with arrest if they showed up to vote. 2004 seemed like a new low for Republican electoral intimidation and fraud.
But in 2006, the GOP is already surpassing its past election deceptions in both kind and degree. And using methods both legal and illegal, the Republican machine may yet determine the outcome on Tuesday.
The growing "Robo-Calling" scandal shows the lengths to which a Republican party desperate to maintain its power will go. In state after state, automated calling systems phone voters with a message from someone claiming to speak on behalf of or even pretending to be a Democratic candidate. After the recipient hangs up, the machine dials again, often 8 to 10 times. The Robo efforts, which are angering and frustrating voters all over the country, have already been reported in 53 races so far across Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Kansas, Washington, Virginia, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey, among other states. (The state of New Hampshire is investigating whether the GOP has broken the state's "Do Not Call" registry law.) Nationally, the senior House Democrats have asked for an investigation of the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC) and its illegal robo-calling practices. But as Joshua Micah Marshall notes in Talking Points Memo, the GOP will be only too happy to pay whatever fines it faces.
In comparison with the criminal fraud of the Republican Robo Calling scandal, the GOP's other election 2006 skullduggery seems almost pedestrian. In Orange County, California, House candidate Tan Nguyen sent a mailing to Hispanic voters threatening them with deportation if they showed up at the polls. In Colorado, Republican 7th congressional district candidate Rick O'Donnell sent a mailing designed to look like a sex offender notice to smear his Democratic opponent. Across the country, Republican push polls lie to voters about the positions, biographies and records of Democratic candidates. In Maryland, Ohio and states around the nation, Republicans are planning to aggressively challenge voter eligibility at the polls. And in Houston, Mayor Bill White cancelled planned free flu shots at the polls after complaints from Republican officials worried about increased minority (read "Democratic") turnout.
And those Republicans in Houston are not alone. In 2006, Americans just aren't very keen the GOP. But for all the Democrats' optimism, they shouldn't pronounce last rites for the Republicans in Congress just yet.
That's because on Wednesday morning, November 8th, there may still be more of them around than we would have thought.