By Hank Plante
Special to Calbuzz
Mitt Romney’s tepid victory in his home state of Michigan this week was so narrow that he’ll have to split that state’s delegates almost evenly with Rick Santorum.
Beyond learning that the Republican party is still deeply divided, there is another lesson emerging that should serve as a warning sign to whoever is the nominee: too many Republican voters are staying home.
In most of the GOP primaries this year, Republican turnout has been abysmally low.
Michigan joins other states where GOP turnout was lower than it was four years ago. In fact, compared to 2008, Republican turnout this year was down 11% in Iowa, down 14% in Florida, down 23% in Minnesota and down 26% in Nevada. This, despite 20 Republican debates and the most lively GOP primary season in years.
So where’s the enthusiasm? Simply put, the party may be paying the price for having candidates so far to the right that they are out of touch with mainstream voters, including mainstream Republicans.
Culture wars: The low turnout is indicative that many GOP moderates are feeling alienated. Even conservative columnist David Brooks complained in the New York Times this week that, “All across the nation there are mainstream Republicans lamenting how the party has grown more and more insular, more and more rigid.”
Of course some analysts say the problem is simply the choice of GOP candidates. Early in the race, Time Magazine’s Joe Klein coined the phrase, “the Republican Romper Room.” And Michael Tomasky, writing in The Daily Beast, said, “They’re lousy candidates with no ideas because they’re in a party that doesn’t care about ideas.”
“All these candidates have to do is speak in billboards,” Tomasky added. “Low taxes. No regulation. Cut spending. Death to the EPA. Build a fence. Build a higher fence.”
As the leading candidates have talked about contraception, gay rights, religion and even what’s wrong with a college education, they have missed opportunities to talk more about the economy – the one area where President Obama may be vulnerable.
And when they do talk about these cultural issues, they are so far outside the mainstream that the eventual nominee may never be able to move back to the middle, where elections are won.
Not exactly Goldwater: How will that nominee explain all nine Republican candidates standing silently at a debate while a gay solider in Iraq is booed by the audience, simply because he asked an innocent question via YouTube?
Contrast that to the positions of Barry Goldwater, the father of modern conservatism, who believed in gay rights and abortion rights, because he felt the true conservative position was that the government should stay out of your bedroom and out of your medical clinic.
National Republicans who have shut-out moderates in their party may pay the same price their brethren have already paid in California. By alienating Latinos, gays, union workers and independents, California Republicans have seen their registration drop to 30% of the electorate here (a five-point decline since 2003). That gives California Democrats nearly a 14-point advantage in voter registration.
A Republican moderate like Tom Campbell, who ran in the U.S. Senate primary last time, didn’t stand a chance of getting his party’s nomination.
Many doubt that a moderate like Arnold Schwarzenegger could have won in a normal Republican primary, rather than waltzing-in the back door of a recall campaign.
And here we are, eight months before the next Senate race, and state Republicans have not managed to recruit a single big name candidate to take on Democrat Dianne Feinstein.
Not so-Golden State for GOP: It was after that last statewide election that another Republican moderate, former California GOP Chair Duf Sundheim, pronounced, “Republicans, as a brand, are dead.”
Ironically, the Republicans who are left here in the Golden State may actually have a voice in the Presidential primary race, since it appears it won’t be decided anytime soon. Our June 5th primary may count, especially when you consider our state’s 172 GOP delegates make-up 15% of the total needed to be nominated.
When the Republican candidates arrive in California, they’ll find a state so moderate that this week’s Field Poll finds gay marriage is favored here by 25 points. Whether those candidates adapt to our reality, or whether they continue to pander to an extremist segment of their base, remains to be seen.
Hank Plante, Palm Springs Bureau Chief for Calbuzz, is an Emmy Award-winning reporter who has spent three decades covering California politics.