Republicans are funny animals. We have all types in the GOP, from rich to poor, young to old, rural 'home-folk' to the country-club elite. The party has morphed dramatically over the years with each election cycle, but one thing has been consistent since Ronald Reagan's ascendancy in the 80's, most conservative voters call themselves Republican.
In 1976, conservatives in American lined up behind a Democrat, Jimmy Carter. Carter touted his born again credentials among the Christian faithful, and many, including my parents, thought he would be a champion of culturally conservative principles. Economic issues were not a driving force in the '76 presidential race, and Carter beat out Gerald Ford, the sitting Republican vice-president, in 1976. The fact that Ford was inextricably tied to Nixon, doomed his candidacy. The GOP at that time was seen as a party for the wealthy. Few of my family's friends in Mississippi, my home state, openly supported Gerald Ford.
But, in 1980, Ronald Reagan stepped onto the stage, and everything changed. Carter had been a miserable failure. His economic policy failures, bumbling of foreign policy, and failure to champion culturally conservative causes, made the conservatives in America re-evaluate their place in the Democratic party. Southern conservatives defected from the Democratic party in large numbers. This exodus began in earnest at the national level, but trickled down to state and local elections over the next decade. The Democratic party had once been the dominant political force in the deep south, with Reagan, they would be supplanted by the Republican party. By the end of the 80's, the south, and much of the mid-west was fully in the Republican column.
With Reagan in office, conservatism was being embraced by more people than ever. The Republican party platform was re-written to include strong stances on cultural issues such as life, marriage and family. The GOP was considered the party strongest on national defense, strongest on reducing crime, and the party least likely to champion the social welfare state. The miserable failures of the social welfare state under Carter were evidenced in many parts of the deep south with increased poverty and ballooning crime rates. The GOP was seen as the pragmatic law-and-order party who would end this culture of dependency that had held so many families in its grip.
Reagan won re-election in a landslide in 1984. His masterful work ending the Cold War and bringing back Morning in America endeared him to Republicans and Democrats alike. He won over independent voters and, for the only time in my lifetime (that I can remember), conservatives were actually winning the argument with liberals.
When Reagan left office in 1988, he was succeeded by George H.W. Bush, another Republican. Bush, Sr. did not have the soaring rhetoric or passion of Reagan, but most conservatives lined up behind him... believing he would carry on in the Reagan tradition. His famous line "Read my lips..." made the fiscal conservatives rally for him as well.
But over the last several election cycles, we've seen a shift in the GOP. The more culturally conservative members of the GOP have been relegated to the back bench. The large conservative majorities built during the Reagan era have not resulted in conservative party leadership. Most of the leadership positions in the Republican party are held by those who are wary of the more conservative coalitions of the party. There was a brief hope that George W. Bush, would bring back Reagan-style conservatism, but George W. Bush's propensity for spending (i.e. Medicare Part D) and his push for an increased federal role in education with No Child Left Behind further eroded conservatives enthusiasm for the GOP.
There have been a number of GOP candidates for President since Reagan who were not embraced by conservatives including Bob Dole and John McCain (and George H.W. Bush in his second run). The GOP party machine was effective in garnering the support needed for these candidates to win nomination , but not in helping them win in the general election. The enthusiasm gap for these candidates was apparent in decreased voter turnout and lack of active support by the more conservative base of the GOP.
And now we come to the election of 2012, one of the most volatile nomination races I've ever witnessed. The less conservative GOP party leadership jumped on the Mitt Romney bandwagon early on. The conservative base split their loyalties between Michelle Bachman, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, and Newt Gingrich. The large number of conservative candidates vying for the GOP nomination left the conservative base fractured through the first few contests, but one-by-one, the conservative candidates began to drop out. We are now down to two conservative candidates: Gingrich and Santorum. But, the base has been unwilling to coalesce around just one. So, it appears the party may be about to crown the least conservative in the field as their nominee, to the delight of the GOP party leadership. The base is restless. Trouble is brewing.
The money and efforts expended by GOP party leadership to force a less-than-conservative candidate on the conservative base is unprecedented. Yet, despite their best efforts, the GOP leadership has failed to quell the deep skepticism held for Romney by many in the GOP. Conservatives are not sold on Romney's severely-conservative credentials, and are less than enthusiastic about a potential Obama-Romney match-up in the fall. What the GOP leadership hadn't considered, is the conservative GOP base may decide to choose none-of-the-above in the fall campaign. Without conservative support, Romney would be headed for certain defeat. Even with a Romney victory over Obama, the base of the GOP would be further alienated.. and conservatives are a very important block for upcoming election battles. The lack of conservative fervor would also have detrimental effect on GOP chances in House and Senate battles. With the just-announced resignation of Republican Senator Olympia Snow (of Maine), the potential for GOP to retake the Senate, less likely.
So what are conservatives to do? I don't have the answer to that question, but I am not feeling particularly welcome in my party anymore. I am not sure where I would turn, seeing that there is no viable alternative at this point. Conservatives defected from the Democratic party with Reagan, will conservatives now defect from the GOP? With the rise of the Tea-Party, perhaps a new party could emerge that could provide disaffected conservatives a new home. Time will tell. I am open to most any option, but I have no interest in remaining in a party whose only leaders have rejected Reagan conservatism. Conservatives who wish to have a voice in the GOP really only have one option, defeat the establishment candidate and place conservatives in positions of leadership within the GOP. Without that, the future for conservatives in the GOP is not a bright one.