The Republican Party’s image is in a ruinous condition, as polls show wide public disapproval of the GOP that has only deepened in the wake of the government shutdown, and concern over whether Republicans are too ideologically hardline to govern.
For Republican politicians in America’s big cities, that grim state of affairs might be called “the usual.”
Largely unnoticed in Washington, urban Republican politicians have emerged over the last year as perhaps the nation’s most severely endangered political species, as the party has either failed to compete for high-profile mayor’s offices or has been soundly rebuffed by voters. It’s a significant setback that some Republicans view as an ominous sign for the GOP in a country growing steadily more urban and diverse.
The starkest examples of GOP rollback come from New York, where frankly liberal Democrat Bill de Blasio currently leads Republican Joe Lhota, a former top Rudy Giuliani adviser, by more than 40 points; and Los Angeles, where the lone Republican candidate took just 16 percent in an open primary and failed even to qualify for the general election.
But the Republicans’ big-city drought is a setback that goes far beyond the country’s top two cities. In the year 2000, Republican mayors governed half of the country’s dozen largest cities by population. Some of the party’s most provocative leaders had come out of city hall, including New York’s Giuliani, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, the celebrated policy wonk and George W. Bush adviser.
Today, you have to go all the way down to Indianapolis – the country’s 13th-largest city – to find just one Republican mayor. Even cities that have historically preferred center-right mayors, such as Jacksonville and Phoenix, have turned away from the GOP. (New York’s mayor, billionaire Michael Bloomberg, has appropriated the Republican ballot line for his campaigns, but calls himself an independent and endorsed President Barack Obama for reelection last year.)
City leaders in both parties chalk up the withering of the urban GOP to an array of forces: dropping crime rates that have made voters indifferent to law-and-order politics; Democrats’ increasing willingness to confront public employee unions and a radioactive national Republican brand that’s utterly lethal among many nonwhite voters.
To the few Republicans still in charge of major American cities, the most frustrating problem of all may be the GOP’s apparent lack of concern for the party’s city hall shutout.
“The Democratic Party uses mayors as spokespeople and as examples of success. The Republican Party seems to not want to allow Republican mayors to be part of the story,” said Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, the lone mayor of a significant city to address the 2012 GOP convention in Tampa. In exceedingly sharp contrast, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro was the 2012 Democratic convention keynoter and a long list of his fellow city executives took the stage in Charlotte.
Cornett said the typical mayor’s perspective – even for a Republican – is simply more technocratic, more focused on public services and business development, than the message currently coming out of the national GOP.
“When the Republican Party starts speaking nationally, they’re not speaking typically from a centrist point of view,” Cornett said. “There aren’t many mayors who are successful who can come at it from the far right.”
U.S. Conference of Mayors President Scott Smith, the GOP mayor of Mesa, Ariz., said his party has “completely ignored mayors” and overlooked appealing stories of fiscal stewardship. It’s not an accident, he said, that the national party has a hard time convincing voters to trust it with the responsibility of governing.
“Republicans are like the Democrats in the early ‘70s. They put ideology above all,” Smith said. “And just like George McGovern would have had a hard time really governing based on his ideology, I think most far-right ideology – any ideology, far-left, far-right – would have a hard time governing.”
The Republicans’ inability to gain ground in urban areas could have both short- and long-term consequences for the party, GOP city leaders warn. In the immediate term, Republicans have lost a critical arena for showcasing policy ideas: as much as center-right policy thinkers care about charter schools and school choice, for example, they have few natural allies in city halls to put those ideas to the test.
In the bigger picture, Republican losses on the city level have had consequences in other elections – presidential races in states like Ohio and Florida, for instance. In 2004, President Bush won 39 percent of big-city voters to John Kerry’s 60 percent. Last year, Obama won 69 percent of big-city voters on his way to reelection, versus 29 percent for Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
That shift is no accident, Democrats and Republicans agreed, given the Obama campaign’s relentless outreach to the young and nonwhite voters who make up a growing percentage of the urban electorate. Nor is it a surprise that cities would deliver for Democrats in a year when the Democratic mayors of San Antonio, Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and a host of other metropolises became major surrogates for the president’s reelection.
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