US Election: GOP Neo-Cons No More? – Religious Right On Outs?

Mainstream Republicans looking pessimistically to November 7 might consider that, even in the worst case scenario, the mid-terms could still ironically deliver results that bode well for the party’s future. There is speculation that the mid-terms will deal death blows to the GOP’s neoconservative and religious right factions and, for some party faithful, such a silver lining would take the sting out of even the most devastating electoral defeat.

Many traditional Republicans have found themselves increasingly at odds with the party’s ‘fringe elements’, whom they believe have had a disproportionate level of control over the GOP in recent years.

The Iraq war is by far the major electoral albatross, and could help deliver substantive mid-term victories to the Democrats. Should that happen, Republicans would almost certainly turn with a vengeance on the neoconservatives, the implacable ideological warriors who, along with Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, led the charge in the Bush administration to make the case for war in Iraq.

Apart from the Bush administration’s strategic bungling, and rising doubts about the war’s justification, Republicans have also argued that the war represents a departure from the core Republican principles of small government and fiscal responsibility. The US budget deficit rang in at $248 billion for the fiscal year just ended, down from $319 billion in 2005 and $413 billion in 2004.

Meanwhile, the religious right is disillusioned by the scandal surrounding former Congressman Mark Foley’s sexually explicit messages to underage male pages. They feel betrayed by the Republican hierarchy who failed to take the matter seriously and discipline Mr Foley for his predatory behavior. The scandal has also stirred up the fierce homophobia of the religious fundamentalists, who are now talking about the need for a ‘pink purge’ of the GOP. Usually a reliable voting contingent, from local primaries to federal elections, the fundies may well stay away from the polling booths in droves for the mid-terms.

Then there is the possible ousting of Senator Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania, with recent polls showing him trailing his Democrat opponent Bob Casey by 5 to 14 percentage points. Mr Santorum is a staunch Bush ally and firebrand social conservative who helped steer the religious right towards a more combative style in the early 1990s; he has helped them maintain their momentum since. Mr Santorum’s supporters have reportedly flown in from as far away as the UK to volunteer for his campaign, because his departure from elected office would be a substantial setback for the GOP’s religious right movement.

Yet that might not be considered such a great setback for moderate Republicans, who long for the days when the party represented mainstream conservative values. In one recent editorial, Steve Rose of the Johnson County Sun in Kansas explained his frustration with the GOP and the reasons why his paper will take the extraordinary step of endorsing ‘conservative Democrats’ in the mid-term elections, despite the paper’s long tradition of supporting Republicans:

“The Republican Party has changed, and it has changed monumentally. You almost cannot be a victorious traditional Republican candidate with mainstream values in Johnson County or in Kansas anymore, because these candidates never get on the ballot in the general election. They lose in low turnout primaries, where the far right shows up to vote in disproportionate numbers.”

Top Bush administration advisor Karl Rove has reportedly referred to the Christian fundamentalists as “the nuts” whose sole value to the party is getting candidates elected; other than that, the GOP should have nothing to do with them. Yet in practice, the party leadership failed to stop the far right from taking over. Although fundamentalist ideology flies in the face of mainstream Republican values, the fundies have dominated the Republican agenda on a range of issues.

Their anti-science/anti-education/anti-freedom agenda includes banning stem cell research, rejecting the evidence of global warming, forcing public schools to teach intelligent design/creationism in science classes, censoring textbooks, banning sex education and discriminating against people on the basis of their religion and sexual orientation.

Such extreme positions, combined with the Iraq debacle, have alienated mainstream Republicans to the extent that they’d rather stay home on polling day – or even vote Democrat. Yet for these voters, better days may be on the horizon. This may be the election day of attrition that offloads much of the baggage of the neocons and the fundies, and returns the GOP to its traditional electoral base.

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