The Big Question: Are the Republicans becoming a force once again in US politics?

Why are we asking this now?

Today sees the first elections of significance in the US since the election of Barack Obama, who tomorrow celebrates the first anniversary of his own historic victory, recapturing the White House for the Democrats after eight years of George W Bush. And for once, Republicans are set to win something. Every sign is they will easily regain the governorship of Virginia, a state which in 2008 Obama became the first Democrat to carry in 44 years. The contest in New Jersey, the other state choosing a governor, is much closer. But a Republican win would be notable in a state that has been trending Democratic for a decade. Taken together, the results will inevitably be portrayed as a referendum on Obama, and a Republican double would be widely interpreted (in the Grand Old Party at least) as a national thumbs-down for a President whose approval ratings have already dropped to the mid-50s.

But would it be?

In reality, no. But in politics perceptions are all. This is what in American politics is termed an "off-year", without either a Presidential election or mid-term Congressional elections. As a result, turnout in both Virginia and New Jersey will be low. The Obama administration has all but written off Virginia, where the Democratic candidate has waged a poor campaign in a state which makes a habit of electing Governors from the opposite party to the one that holds the White House. New Jersey is a different matter. Obama has campaigned extensively for Jon Corzine, the incumbent Democrat (and a former co-chairman of Goldman Sachs). If Corzine loses – and final polls give his Republican opponent Chris Christie a narrow lead – the White House will naturally insist it's business as usual. But Republicans will be take a Democratic loss as proof that Obama's personal star-power no longer suffices to win elections on its own.

So have Republicans exorcised the George W Bush factor?

Up to a point. The last president left office with some of the lowest poll ratings and a collective national (and international) heave of relief. But nine months is an eternity in politics. Team Obama still blames the previous administration for the country's woes; the country however no longer sees it like that. This is now Obama's economy – 10 per cent unemployment and all. In the public mind, Iraq remains very much Bush's war, but the ever more unpopular Afghan conflict now belongs to Obama. Equally, Republicans had sunk so low under Bush in the 2006 and 2008 elections, that they had nowhere to go but up. In fact the party has corrected none of its underlying problems. It has yet to come up with convincing new leaders. Even more important, it remains intellectually bankrupt, bereft of new ideas.

So who are the brightest Republican stars?

As might be expected, name recognition from the recent presidential campaign counts for most right now. With John McCain out of the picture, the three most popular Republicans nationwide are McCain's two closest challengers for the 2008 nomination: former governors Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts. Then of course there's the polarising Sarah Palin, whose forthcoming memoir Going Rogue is already bestseller on Amazon, even though it doesn't hit bookstores until 16 November. Tim Pawlenty, governor of Minnesota and strongly considered by McCain as running-mate, is also a factor while some see Bob McDonnell, the telegenic Republican candidate for governor in Virginia, as a budding national figure. But an indication of how bare is the cupboard right now is the talk of former House speaker Newt Gingrich, yesterday's man if ever there was one, as a possible 2012 candidate.

But aren't all of the above strong conservatives?

Indeed they are (with the possible exception of Romney) – and therein lies the problem. In today's confused Republican landscape, only one thing is clear: the party is moving to the right. The reasons are various; among them are increased partisanship in Washington and jerry-mandered districts, which has created ever safer seats. These days, the main danger for a moderate Republican incumbent often lies in a primary challenge from the right. But the result has been the near-extinction of Congressional Republicans in places like New England, and reflex, near-monolithic Republican hostility to any Obama initiative. Take health care reform, the most important of those initiatives. The only Republican senator to back the proposal has been Olympia Snowe, one of a dwindling band of party moderates on Capitol Hill. She hails, predictably, from Maine in New England.

Doesn't homogeneity make opposition easier?

In the short term, that's probably true. Thus far Republicans (who tend in any case to be more disciplined than Democrats) have held together remarkably. They have been able to simply to oppose whatever measures are proposed by the White House or the Democratic majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives, and given the peculiar rules of the Senate, where any contested legislation needs a filibuster-proof majority of 60 to pass, that strategy could be enough. But in the mid-terms of 2010, and in the presidential vote of 2012, voters will be looking for constructive policies from Republicans, not the single destructive word, "No". And in the policy vacuum, the party is turning on itself.

But isn't civil war a Democratic speciality?

Not right now. In essence, the Republican leadership is losing control of the grassroots. The party on Capitol Hill may be conservative, but not conservative enough for activists. The trend was evident in the rowdy health care meetings this summer, in the "tea-party" anti-deficit, anti-government movement sprouting across the country – and most vividly in today's extraordinary battle for New York's remote and rock-solid Republican 23rd Congressional District. Right-wing activists considered the official candidate chosen by the GOP to fight the special election to be excessively moderate, so they ran their own conservative one instead. Trailing in the polls, the moderate Republican dropped out, and endorsed the Democrat. If the polls are right, the 23rd District will today fall victim to a conservative coup – but a coup whose long term beneficiaries will probably be the Democrats.

How come?

America may be a more conservative country than Britain, but as in Britain, elections in America are won and lost in the centre of the political spectrum. Red-blooded conservatism fires up the faithful; its relentless hostility to big government flourishes when huge public policy issues like health care and green energy dominate debate. But the net result may be to drive independents and moderates to the Democrats. Take Sarah Palin: while a minority of voters adores her, a large majority cannot abide her. That is not a formula for long-term success. If they continue on their present track, Republicans could be heading towards not a 1980-model Reagan triumph, but a 1964-model Goldwater disaster.

Is the Republican recovery for real?


*Americans are uneasy with Democratic "big government", of huge deficits and health reform

*The country is coming to believe that Obama's foreign policy is a recipe for weakness

*Republican support in 2008 fell to the bedrock. Disillusioned independents will soon be drifting back


Republicans are in a hopeless muddle, divided between realists and a strident 'purist' conservative faction

*The party has no new philosophy to replace the discredited supply-side, "trickle-down" Reagan-era policies

*The party remains out of touch with young people, and the black and Hispanic minorities