WASHINGTON – A growing number of Republican voters are frustrated by congressional spending and scandal, according to GOP leaders from across the country who worry that an "enthusiasm deficit" could cost the party control of Congress in November.
Some rank-and-file Republicans wonder what happened to the party that promised to reform Washington after taking control of Congress in 1994 for the first time in 40 years.
"We've seen the enemy, and he is us," said Tom Rath, a Republican National Committee member from New Hampshire describing the sentiments of some GOP voters. "We have to get back to the basics. Let's talk about small government and reduced spending, and don't let the Democrats take those issues."
"I hear a lot of concern about increased spending and the need to reduce it — talk about getting back to the basics," said Kate Obenshain Griffin, chairwoman of the Virginia Republican Party.
Griffin, Rath and several other Republican activists attending a two-day RNC meeting said GOP voters in their states still strongly support President Bush. They also insisted in interviews that Republicans were more likely than not to retain control of the House and the Senate in November.
But the possibility of losing Congress doesn't seem as remote as it once did. Many tried-and-true Republican voters are disenchanted with party leaders in Congress, and the sulky mood could suppress turnout in November, RNC members said.
Separately, private polling for Republicans suggest that government spending and political fallout from the Iraq war are causing anxiety among GOP voters. Senior party officials inside and outside the White House fear that Washington scandal may hurt GOP turnout if average Republican voters believe that Congress' spending habits are partly the result of corruption.
That may be one reason why national party chairman Ken Mehlman told RNC members that corrupt politicians in either party should be rooted out and punished. "The public trust is more important than party," he said in a speech prepared for delivery Friday.
The investigation of lobbyist Jack Abramoff threatens to ensnare at least a half dozen members of Congress of both parties and Bush administration officials. Abramoff, who has admitted to conspiring to defraud his Indian tribe clients, has pleaded guilty to corruption-related charges and is cooperating with prosecutors. His ties to GOP congressional leaders and the White House pose a particular problem for Republicans.
Ten months before the midterm elections, Bush gets a chance to shape the political landscape with his State of the Union address Jan. 31. But there are a few clouds on the horizon that concern Republicans:
— A debate over immigration reform in Congress that threatens to divide the pro-business wing of the party from the anti-immigration conservatives.
— A May 15 deadline to sign up for a Bush-backed Medicare prescription drug program that has angered senior citizens, a formidable voting bloc in November.
— Revised budget deficit estimates are expected soon from the Congressional Budget Office and the White House. Bush will urge Congress to increase the $1.8 trillion debt limit in the next few weeks. These are all reminders that Republican-led Washington is awash in red ink.
Republican voters want their leaders to use control of Congress and the White House to implement a conservative agenda, and not get sidetracked by politics or scandal in Washington, RNC members said.
"There is frustration when people see internal struggles here in Washington and they don't see us get anything done on immigration and don't see us get anything done on the deficit," said DeMarus Carlson, an RNC member from Nebraska.
Party leaders fear that while conservative voters may become disengaged, liberal voters will be galvanized by their opposition to the Iraq war and their frustration with minority-party status.
"I talk about an enthusiasm deficit, and I think we have a little bit of that," Rath said of Republican voters. "They say we need to get our act together. They still love this president. But they want to see movement on the things that brought us to power. We took the government over and promised to fix things."
Outside the RNC, party strategists expressed the same concerns about voter turnout in November.
"They do love the president, but they have seen a Congress that doesn't seem to function well and they wonder what the heck is going on," said consultant Joe Gaylord, who helped Republicans seize control of the House in 1994 as an adviser to then-Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga.
"Whether it's an inability to communicate accurately or an unwillingness to solve the problems they were put in power to fix, people are confused," Gaylord said, "and that confusion could lead people to stay home in November."