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Houses divided

The GOP's shaky base has Democrats bickering among themselves over how to stage a mid-term election coup

Congressman Rahm Emanuel stormed out of Howard Dean's office in early May, a trail of expletives bubbling in his wake. The Illinois Democrat was reportedly displeased with the party's national committee chairman for blowing through gobs of midterm campaign cash on state races Democrats have no conceivable shot of winning.

After raking in contributions close to $75 million since the election cycle opened in 2005, Mr. Dean has subsequently drained party reserves to around $10 million, overseeing an ambitious effort to invade Republican strongholds. Mr. Emanuel's fury highlights a powerful contingent of congressional Democrats upset with Mr. Dean's leadership.

Such tension among party elites reflects a growing sense of Democratic dread that poor strategy might waste a chance to reverse the country's right-leaning political tilt. Mr. Emanuel admitted as much to The Washington Post, calling the upcoming midterm and presidential elections "a historic opportunity" and warning: "We can't squander it."

But Republicans are hardly celebrating reports of Democratic conflict, most recognizing the primary source of such impassioned engagement: GOP dysfunction. Significant rifts along social and economic lines have rendered the Republican Party's control of Congress vulnerable to a united Democratic seizure-if only the minority party could resolve its divisive strategy debates in time. With quibbling on both sides of the political aisle, victory this November may not depend on which divided house can stand, but which fallen house can rise.

Recent events suggest further demolition remains for both parties before rebuilding can begin. Even as Mr. Emanuel delivered his tirade, some conservatives expressed dissatisfaction that congressional Republicans have not made the federal marriage amendment a priority. Southern Baptist Convention leader Richard Land believes evangelical angst extends also to President George W. Bush, who has pushed prescription drug legislation and Social Security reform but done little concerning the marriage amendment.

Polling data confirms such dissatisfaction. While media outlets celebrate Mr. Bush's plummeting approval rating throughout the country, administration aides are far more concerned with slumping numbers in traditionally strong GOP demographics. A Pew study from early May reveals that support among white evangelicals has dipped from 72 percent to 55 percent since the start of the president's second term-a statistical drop equal to that among the general U.S. population. What's more, nearly half of the surveyed white evangelicals agreed with the statement, "I am tired of all the problems associated with the Bush administration."

While disfavor directed specifically at the White House does not necessarily reflect sentiments toward the broader Republican leadership-or even future presidential candidates-it diminishes Mr. Bush's ability to assist Republican campaigns with his bully pulpit. Historically, poor public perception of party brass often triggers negative trickle-down effects on local races. But according to the Pew study, evangelical support for GOP congressional candidates remains strong, 64 percent intending to vote Republican this fall. By comparison, a majority of all Americans (51 percent) say they will vote Democrat.

With evidence of continued evangelical backing, Republicans hope to remind constituents of the party's conservative accomplishments-primarily the confirmations of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. Increased efforts to confirm similar nominees to the lower federal courts could go a long way toward solidifying support from so-called values voters concerned with judicial tyranny.

President Bush's immigration plan, securing the border while treating those immigrants already in the country with compassion, also rings true with many evangelicals-as well as most Americans (related story, p. 26). A recent Gallup poll shows three out of four Americans are committed to both curbing the flow of illegal immigrants and allowing those present to remain in the country to work or attain citizenship.

Those who call for the deportation of an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants receive support from only a fifth of the U.S. population-despite efforts to cast it as the mainstream conservative position. Still, a considerable chunk of Republican voters-as much as 29 percent, according to a recent Zogby poll-are upset with Mr. Bush's immigration proposals, further dividing the party base.

Though many evangelicals support immigration reform, that issue alone will not likely energize the critical GOP demographic. Instead, immigration threatens to consume large shares of time and energy, preventing congressional Republicans from pushing through legislation that would confirm their commitments to religious conservative ideals. The Senate revisits the same-sex marriage debate this month, but the proposed amendment is not expected to pass this year. While Democrats are not likely to reap a massive bloc of evangelical voters from such shortcomings, the potential is high for third-party support or an uninspired turnout.

Keenly aware of such possibilities, many Democrats are seeking to avoid or soften controversial positions that draw evangelicals to the polls. Some are even pushing toward an objective widely considered impossible over the last three decades: Democratic conversion. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) made a publicized appearance at last year's grand opening of Pastor Joel Osteen's megachurch building, the former basketball arena of the Houston Rockets. South Carolina Democrat James Clyburn visited the Dallas church of Pentecostal minister T.D. Jakes several months later.

Mr. Dean recently took such outreach efforts one step further, making a surprising appearance on Pat Robertson's 700 Club to announce that Democrats "have an enormous amount in common with the Christian community, and particularly with the evangelical Christian community." Mr. Dean went so far as to misrepresent his party's platform, saying it defines marriage as "between a man and a woman." In reality, the platform is conspicuously silent on marriage but lends support to equal rights for gay and lesbian families.

That statement provoked widespread hysteria among homosexual-rights activists, prompting many to question if Democrats are taking their liberal base for granted in pursuing new groups of voters. Columnist Chris Cain, executive editor of a prominent homosexual news source on the web, accused Mr. Dean of "betting that gay Americans are so disgusted with six years of Republican-controlled Washington that he can afford to anger a few activists while moving the party to the political center." Mr. Cain argues the strategy won't work, instead contributing to the Democrats' "worst image problem: that of a do-nothing party without clear positions, principles or a plan."

A tarnished Republican image may well produce a Democratic revolution this fall, but presidential campaigns typically require more principled clarity than negativity-just ask John Kerry. Hillary Clinton, the leading candidate for the Democratic Party's 2008 nomination, has worked tirelessly to recast herself as a moderate, reaching out to new voters in much the same manner as Mr. Dean. Such rebuilding of the party for greater mass appeal may pay off in the long run-provided the traditional Democratic base remains loyal. But ignoring the base is a dangerous game-just ask an increasingly wobbly GOP.

Primary battles

June 6

California: Pro-war Democratic congresswoman Jane Harman will face off against anti-war challenger Marcy Winograd.

Maine: Pro-abortion Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe, who has served as a congresswoman and senator for nearly 28 years, faces a protest challenge from religious rights activist and write-in candidate Edward Libby.

June 13

New Jersey: Republican Senate-hopeful Thomas Kean Jr., an embryonic stem-cell research supporter, squares off with conservative John Ginty, who opposes embryonic stem-cell research but supports adult stem-cell research. The primary winner will likely face Democratic incumbent Sen. Robert Menendez.

Virginia: Differences in opinion on illegal immigration are fueling the primary race between Democratic congressional candidates Andrew Hurst and Kenneth Longmyer.

June 27

Utah: Illegal immigration is at the core of the race between 10-year veteran Republican congressman Chris Cannon and political novice John Jacob.

Mark Bergin

Mark Bergin

Mark is a former WORLD reporter.