Looks like J Ro and I are thinking alike. I finished this post about a minute after he hit post on his.
Over at The Next Right, Patrick Ruffini writes that with regards to the future of the Republican Party, "Center vs. Right is the Wrong Debate." Moreover, he writes, "American elections are by and large not referendums on ideologies. They are contests of personality, optics, and performance in office." I'd recommend you read the piece if you get the chance.
There's certainly something to the argument, particularly that the attractiveness of the candidate and the broader environment in the country weigh heavily on elections. But I do not believe this tells the whole story. Take a look, for instance at the recent track record of the Club for Growth, the aim of which is to shift the Republican Party to the right.
As the Republicans gather all over the place to mull their future, one group wants to single out the conservative Club for Growth for hurting the party with moderates. In particular, the League of Conservation voters says it's finding it difficult to find moderate pro-environment Republicans to support, because the Club has been so successful knocking them off in GOP primaries. But the LCV notes the Club's record in general elections is not good. Club-backed candidates -- who defeated some Republicans the LCV would have supported or have supported -- lost congressional elections last week in MD-01, MI-07, and ID-01. In addition, their New Mexico Senate candidate also lost (and lost badly). Has the Club been too pure and ended up nominating candidates that are too conservative, allowing Democrats to win in places like, well, Idaho? The Club is going to have some defending to do (particularly with its donors) about how well the conservative purity game is playing out on the trail.
On the down ballot level, it's very clear that the Republicans have lost seats as a result of ideology in recent cycles. To take one example, in Maryland's first congressional district, which is mentioned above, moderate Republican Wayne Gilchrest would almost undoubtedly have won reelection this month had he not been defeated by a far-right, Club-sponsored candidate in the GOP primary; instead, Democrat Frank Kratovil is the Congressman-elect. To take another example, which isn't mentioned above, the Republicans likely would not have been able to retake Kansas' second congressional district had they nominated conservative Jim Ryun instead of moderate Lynn Jenkins to take on freshman Democratic Congresswoman Nancy Boyda. Similarly, moderate GOP Senator Susan Collins was about the only potentially vulnerable Republican hailing from a blue state to win reelection (and handily) this fall. And the list goes on.
More broadly, ideology -- and particularly Americans' reaction to Republican conservatism -- was one of the keys to spelling the doom of George W. Bush's presidency. Hurricane Katrina, and the federal government's inability to deal with the disaster, were clearly the straw that broke the camel's back. However, even before Katrina, Heckuva Job Brownie, etc., it was Americans' disgust and antipathy towards Bush's attempt to partially privatize Social Security -- an ideological move if there ever was one -- that began to drive some who had previously supported the President to begin to oppose him. In short, here ideology mattered, and the far right stance of the GOP cost the party support and votes.
And just to add one more point, Ruffini writes, "The Democrats did not have to change their ideology to win." In some regards this is true, but in others it isn't. Take the issue of guns, which played no small part in the defeats of Al Gore and John Kerry. The Democrats have by and large given up on the idea of gun control, recognizing that it has been a political loser; they dropped their ideological stance on the issue, thus neutralizing it as an effective electoral tool for the other side, and were able to win.
I don't expect any Republicans to listen to me when I suggest that they should move to the center instead of the right, because clearly it's in my interest (at least on the policy level) for the party to be more accommodating of the agenda of Barack Obama and Democrats on Capitol Hill. But if they believe that ideology had nothing to do with their decline in recent years, I do believe they are mistaken.