But in the precincts of movement and social conservatives, an opposite battle cry is sounding. In late November, Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, whose tireless work to recruit unelectable GOP candidates in 2010 did more to help keep Harry Reid Senate majority leader than the work of any single Democrat, lobbed one of the first grenades. He denounced newly announced Republican Senate candidate Representative Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia as being ideologically unacceptable, despite the fact that Capito narrowly leads Democratic incumbent Jay Rockefeller in a poll of the prospective race.
Which points to another, often ignored, GOP weakness: Republicans tend to be more competitive in off-year elections, when voter turnout is far lower than in presidential years and the electorate is therefore older, whiter and more Republican. It is possible for the GOP to do well in 2014, especially because so many vulnerable Democratic Senators in GOP-leaning states face re-election. But like the Republican off-year successes of 2010, a few non-presidential-year victories, while welcome, would also provide the GOP with a highly misleading dead-cat bounce. The electorate in 2016 will look much like the electorate this year, albeit even more Hispanic and more challenging for the GOP. And the overall demographic trends that are burying the current Republican coalition will only become stronger with time.
How will this epic battle end? The struggles of the Democratic Party in its wilderness years from 1968 to 1992 provide two possible answers. Will the GOP, like the Democrats of 1992, find a path to pivot toward electability and the actual governing power that goes with it? Or will today’s Republicans act like the Democrats of 1972, who reacted to the defeat of Establishment favorite Hubert Humphrey in 1968 by nominating George McGovern, a purist candidate from its far left?