WASHINGTON — In recent weeks, three special elections have turned solidly Republican U.S. House seats over to Democrats, and that has GOP leaders on Capitol Hill doing a little soul searching.
Republicans are now casting about for an agenda and message that will help them reverse their string of dispiriting losses and provide some footing for the fall elections.
But they can't agree on how to do it.
Last week, House Republicans unveiled their "American Families Agenda," aimed at helping mothers who work outside the home spend more time with their kids and making health insurance more portable from job to job, which prodded conservatives in the party to hold a special meeting to criticize it.
Unlike the GOP "Family Agenda" of the past, this one doesn't mention gay marriage or flag burning or abortion.
Although they say they remain committed to the party's core principles of low spending and limited government, party leaders are scrambling to develop platforms that will resonate with a broader base of voters.
"Republicans have to realize there are huge numbers of people who have concerns that they don't feel either party has addressed," said Rep. Adam Putnam of Bartow, chairman of the House Republican Conference, a job that puts him in charge of messaging.
Party leaders recognize they're losing voters who believe Republicans don't care enough about the issues affecting everyday Americans, including energy, public safety and health care, he said.
"In those instances, you have to speak to the people, and using the language of 1994 is not speaking to those people."
The language of 1994, of course, is the Contract With America, the 10 conservative principles that Newt Gingrich and the Republicans rode to control of the U.S. House for the first time in 40 years. The party dominated Congress until 2006, when Democrats recaptured the House and the Senate.
The conservative Republican Study Committee, which boasts about 110 members, greeted the Families Agenda with alarm. They released their own recipe for regaining power, highlighting the party's antiabortion stance, streamlining the tax code, and cutting spending.
"House conservatives believe the way back to a Republican majority is to the right," said Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., former chairman of the RSC and a member of its steering committee.
Conservatives maintain that Republicans lost the majority in 2006 not because they were too conservative, but because they lost sight of the principles that delivered them the majority in 1994.
At the Republican meeting, Pence told his colleagues they need to reaffirm their "commitment to national defense, a commitment to fiscal conservatism, and a commitment to the sanctity of life."
Rep. John Boehner, the Republican leader from Ohio who was a top Gingrich lieutenant, said the Families Agenda is not intended to conflict with conservative principles. It's about focusing on what's possible.
"We've never walked away from who we are," Boehner said. "When we controlled the agenda here we could control what came to the floor and what didn't. The Democrats have done everything to avoid votes on social issues. That doesn't mean our commitment is any less."
Speaking in the Republican Study Committee meeting, Pence motioned to the Democratic side of the House chamber and said, "I don't think (voters) hired them in 2006. I think they fired us."
If that's the case, Americans are still in a firing mood. In special elections in Mississippi, Louisiana and Illinois, voters terminated the GOP's once-secure control of three House seats, including one once held by former House Speaker Dennis Hastert.
The Democrat who won the Mississippi election this month, Travis Childers, is antiabortion, pro-gun and pro-business — positions his Republican opponent took, too. Ross K. Baker, a congressional scholar at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said Childers' victory marked a clear denunciation of the Republican Party — voters could have gotten the same flavor in a Republican, but didn't.
The fastest-growing caucus among House Democrats doesn't consist of antiwar or liberal members, but a group of moderates and conservatives called the Blue Dog Coalition. Several of them, like Childers, oppose abortion, and they tend to favor strong national defense and cutting federal spending. At the same time, the number of moderate Republicans has been shrinking.
"What they have to become is a more inclusionary party, or else they will not only be wiped out in New York City, but in New York state and in places like Ohio and Pennsylvania, which they cannot afford to be," Baker said. "They've virtually gone extinct in New England."
Baker said the House Republican leadership's attempt to strike a more moderate tone "is not just a spiritual awakening. This is a realization that they are in big trouble."
Wes Allison can be reached at [email protected] or (202) 463-0577.