A week after the conservative losses at the polls, about 20 tea partiers gathered at a restaurant in North St. Louis County to listen to a few lecturers talk about a few ideas for the future: the flat tax and the fair tax. And yes, to commiserate about the recent past.
“If we can’t even elect a Republican president with Barack Obama as his opponent, how in God's name do we propose to eliminate the tax code?” Bill Hennessy, who helped found the St. Louis Tea Party, asked. He was visibly frustrated.
Most of the Missouri statewide races weren’t even close. The average Democratic win was nearly 10 percentage points. And this was with the Republican Presidential candidate carrying the state by a large margin. And this was with the Republicans gaining an historic amount of power in the state legislature, where the party has a veto-proof majority in both the House and the Senate.
So how did this happen? How did a party that was so seemingly set up to succeed, fail at the statewide level?
“It’s just impossible to win if you’re turning off women, minorities and young voters," Saint Louis University Political Scientist Ken Warren said.
Warren says Republicans have to make a change. He points to exit polls that show Republicans did a poor job of courting those demographics.
On the whole, small districts are not politically diverse or contentious. But that’s different on the statewide level. At that level, candidates have to appeal to a larger and more diverse electorate -- diverse politically, economically and racially.
Here's a short video that takes a look at the election by county. There's also extended interviews with Dr. Warren and Sen. Danforth.
Warren says part of the blame for the loss falls on tea party groups and the religious right.
Tea parties and the religious right were fundamental in getting Congressman Todd Akin on the ticket. And to be fair, his opponent Senator Claire McCaskill spent $2 million during the primary on ads that called him a “true conservative.”
Akin’s now infamous comments concerning the biology of rape -- which is believed in some firmly conservative groups -- hurt the Republican Party, according to Warren.
“The Republican Party does not really represent that extremism," Warren said. "But they can’t help but be associated with it.”
"We've certainly blown it."
It’s not only political scientists that are saying the Republican Party needs to change.
“We’ve certainly blown it," former Senator John Danforth said in an interview with St. Louis Public Radio.
Danforth was instrumental in shaping the Missouri Republican Party 30 years ago. He says his party should have a majority in the U.S. Senate.
”Why don’t we? We nominated people like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock," Danforth said. "They were far out. I think they were viewed by their constituents as far out and unelectable.”
Danforth says “off-the-wall” candidates like Akin damaged the Republican brand. Akin has said there should be no exception for abortion or emergency contraception, even in instances of rape. But Danforth, who is an ordained episcopal minister, says Republicans have to step back from social issues.
“The social issues have pretty much run their course," the former ambassador said. "They tend to be divisive and probably not very consequential."
But the prospect of moderating viewpoints on social issues isn’t an argument that many in the Republican Party will be ready to hear.
The Elephant and the RINO in the Room
Kathie Wimmer was at the St. Louis Tea Party meeting after the election.
“The farther we go and the more we try to change who we are, the more diluted we’ll become the less we’ll win,” she said.
Wimmer says Danforth went “off the reservation.” She calls him a "RINO" -- a term used in tea party circles to refer to Republicans that aren’t conservative enough. It stands for a “Republican In Name Only.”
But Danforth says conservatives have to get away from statements like that.
He says Republicans have to unite behind fiscal conservatism, which he says resonates with a lot of voters.
I asked everyone I interviewed whether or not they thought the Republican Party would change for 2016.
Wimmer, the tea partier, says the GOP better not abandon its conservative base. Danforth told me that he hopes so. And political scientist Ken Warren says the Republican Party doesn’t have a choice.
“The election sent a clear message: you better move to the center or you’re going to have a bleak future.”
Follow Chris McDaniel on Twitter: @csmcdaniel
- See more stories on issues and elections from St. Louis Public Radio, the St. Louis Beacon and Nine Network of Public Media at BeyondNovember.org.