GOP funk slows turnout, money
By: Jim VandeHei and John F. Harris
January 16, 2008

Republicans are facing a threat that spells serious trouble for GOP candidates from the top of the ticket down to the most obscure races. The problem is the funk of the foot soldiers.

So far, the story of the 2008 campaign on the Republican side is what's not happening.

Ambitious Republican politicians at the state and local levels are not deciding that this is the year to make a bid for higher office.

Republican contributors are not opening their wallets and writing campaign checks.

Most striking of all, Republican voters are not heading to the polls to vote in the GOP primaries in anything like participation rates of early years.

Most of these trends have been noted and amply commented upon in isolation. It is in combination, however, that their effects tend to reinforce each other and reach maximum toxicity. A disgruntled base is the root cause of weak fundraising, which contributes to poor candidate recruitment, which in turn leads to GOP activists staying on the sofa rather than heading to the polls.

The sofa effect was especially visible in the early presidential nominating contests this year.

While voter turnout soared to new records in Iowa and New Hampshire on the Democratic side, it was actually down for Republicans in the first three states in which the candidates aggressively campaigned when compared to the last competitive race, in 2000.

All told, 1.2 million voted in the Republican races in Iowa, New Hampshire and Michigan. In 2000, the number was 1.6 million.

Fundraising numbers amplify the trend. Democrats hold a commanding financial edge, with their candidates bringing in $60 million more than Republicans in the first nine months of last year, a full reversal of historic trends. What is even more surprising is the number of people giving money to each party. There were 127,000 donations of $200 or more to Democrats during the first three quarters of 2007 (the most recent data available) and only 84,000 to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

That means Democrats have a much bigger base of potential donors to hit up for the general election and congressional contests. The only bright spot for Republicans has been the RNC retaining its edge over the DNC, though it is a notably much smaller edge than in the past.

Not surprisingly, GOP operatives are invoking glass-half-full rhetoric. "Enthusiasm is probably lower than it has been in the past, but I also believe that the intensity will ratchet up as these stark contrasts begin to crystallize on both sides," said Ed Patru, vice president of Freedom's Watch, a conservative political group.

This could turn out to be true. But some of the effects of this year's enthusiasm gap between the parties are already locked in.

For instance, nearly 10 percent of GOP House members already have announced their retirement. Many of those members represent districts Democrats have at least an outside shot of winning in November.

What's more, only 22 percent of the 229 Democratic members of Congress had drawn challengers as of Sept. 30 of last year, according to the Campaign Finance Institute. Nearly 40 percent of Republicans attracted Democratic opponents.

Do the math: Republicans will have to defend more seats with less money and the threat of lower turnout.

"We are trying to get our troops interested and motivated," says Mary Buestrin, a GOP party official from Wisconsin. She echoed other Republicans in contending this will all change in the general election, when the party has a clear opponent to run against.

Former Bush adviser Karl Rove made essentially this case Wednesday in remarks to the Republican National Committee's winter meeting in Washington. Hillary Rodham Clinton's reputation, polarizing even among many Democrats — combined with a clear contrast between the parties over the future of Iraq — will rally Republicans, he said.

"People are looking over at the other side," agreed Ron Schmidt, an RNC committeeman from South Dakota. "Either Obama or Hillary Clinton will excite the Republicans to participate actively and enthusiastically."

It might. But polling shows it will take a big mood swing to turn hope into results. A recent poll from the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found a telling statistic: 74 percent of Democrats are looking forward to the primaries, compared with 49 percent of Republicans.

With numbers like these, it's little wonder that so many Republicans are content to watch the 2008 election from the sofa.

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