For years, Republican leaders complained about their party’s inability to change its moribund image. The GOP was seen as the party of old Washington hands — of old, white men. The face of the party was the unpopular George Bush, and the grassroots had grown completely disconnected from the party over spending and other issues. Conservatives complained that the party had lost its way, while many small-government libertarians voted for the most liberal presidential candidate ever elected.
The plight of the GOP was so bad that Time Magazine declared the party dead in 2006. Newsweek wrote just last year that ‘we are all socialists.’ A writer in The Daily Caller suggested that the Republican brand was so badly damaged, it was time to change the name of the party completely.
What has changed in the last year to make those notions seem so outdated? The first and most important thing, of course, is that the Obama administration has demonstrated how dangerous it is to put faith in big government. But the other key development is that insurgents, tea partiers, libertarians, and conservative activists have largely decided to re-invigorate the Republican Party rather than leave it. They have organized issue campaigns, run for party leadership positions, supported the Republicans they liked, and run primaries against those they oppose. Not only has this given the GOP better candidates and more popular candidates in many races, it has kept these factions inside the party.
Consider some of the races where voters have rejected the GOP establishment in favor of newcomers and grassroots insurgents. In Pennsylvania, GOP mandarins said that only a trusted moderate like Arlen Specter could win the seat for the GOP. Now Specter is a memory, and the DSCC is beginning to consider whether it’s time to stop wasting money trying to defeat insurgent Pat Toomey.
In Kentucky, the GOP establishment was beaten by Rand Paul’s libertarian brigades — a wayward GOP faction that had turned away from the party because of the profligacy of the Republicans in DC.
In the Florida Senate race, the old guard tried to force out of the race a dynamic young Latino who was the first GOP candidate to declare for Mel Martinez’s Senate seat. The conservative grassroots saw Marco Rubio as a rising star, and the national GOP does now as well. But before realizing that, they recruited the soulless, orange-skinned Charlie Crist into the race – only to find that he believes nothing and will sell out any “conviction.” Fortunately, Rubio leads Crist by a healthy margin.
In Nevada, national GOP leaders couldn’t find a candidate that they liked. There were no GOP governors, or members of Congress, or high-ranking state officials to take on Harry Reid. Sharron Angle eventually emerged as the GOP nominee. And despite millions of dollars in attack ads, she is now an even bet to defeat the Senate majority leader.
And what of the most famous insurgent of all — Sarah Palin? All Palin is doing is shrewdly helping to frame the debate in a way that shows the weakness of liberal policies. From “death panels” to “drill, baby, drill,” Palin has found clear lines of attack against the Obama agenda. And in her spare time, she is boosting a number of rising conservative stars: Nikki Haley, Vicky Hartzler, Renee Elmers, Pam Bondi, Allen West, Sharron Angle, and numerous others. Of course, many of these candidates are women — a demographic the GOP has been desperate to reach out to for decades. And while some take solace that Palin-backed candidates have lost a number of races, it’s worth remembering that these “losers” aren’t going anywhere. While Palin’s help may not have been enough to get some past the finish line today, it will help in future races.
Has the rise of grassroots conservatism been good or bad for the Republican Party and the conservative movement? The answer is clear. Just 18 months ago, there was no Republican Party or conservative movement to speak of. And while Barack Obama deserves much of the credit for its revival, the Republican Party would not have the energy and fresh faces it has now if not for the insurgents who stayed in the party in an attempt to change it.
Brian Faughnan is the Managing Editor for LibertyCentral.org.