By Christine Todd Whitman
The Record
February 2, 2010

The Republicans are back! Just a year ago, as Barack Obama was taking the oath of office as the 44th president of the United States, the Republican Party was struggling on the brink of irrelevancy. Today, we have regained footing.

But can we stay here?

First, we need to understand what caused the change. In 2008, voters showed that they wanted to move away from the politics of divisiveness and the hyper-partisanship that was defining Washington. They were tired of out-of-control spending and the ever-increasing reach of government. They were tired of war. Voters wanted a new approach and Barack Obama articulated that message in a way that appealed. He wasn’t George W. Bush and that was enough for many.

Unfortunately, the Democrats interpreted their victory as a mandate to move the country to the left in accordance with their long pent-up frustration with Republican policies. They felt — and feel — they know best and their goals would be achieved by acting fast without hesitation.

The warning signs started to appear right away but, in the echo chamber that is our nation’s capitol, they were dismissed as the uninformed grousing of the far right. The fact that Republicans allowed themselves to be portrayed as the party of “No” only gave more momentum to House and Senate leadership.

Now we have an unanticipated shake-up that even the hierarchy in D.C. cannot ignore.

Republican victories in New Jersey and Massachusetts (and less so in Virginia) have reshaped the landscape. But before the Republicans get too comfortable and certain of this rebirth, it would behoove us to take a good, hard look at just what happened and why.

To begin, we had two good candidates in Chris Christie and Scott Brown. They were articulate and knew their state’s voters and issues. They worked hard and took nothing for granted.

There is no denying, however, that the Democrats’ agenda in D.C. played a large role in voter anger — especially in Massachusetts, with Scott Brown’s promise to kill health care reform.

Far from getting the open government that we had been promised during the presidential campaign, major bills were passed with little time for discussion. Instead of reaching out to Republicans, the Democratic majority used their power to almost gleefully ignore the opposition party.

And instead of trying to control spending, Washington seemed to be on an even greater spending spree than in the past. The voters wanted to be heard in D.C., and New Jersey and Massachusetts gave them a voice.

This is the perfect time for the Republicans to seize the initiative. Rather than just stop the health care reform bill, they should now push their version — calling for reduced costs to make care more affordable, addressing tort reform and stripping out the pork for Louisiana and Nebraska.

They can look responsible, focused on pocketbook issues and dedicated to solving an issue that needs work. In short, they can look like leaders.

On the political front, these recent victories mean we can win back House and Senate seats and we can return control of many state governments to the GOP this November. If Republicans field good candidates, giving voters men and women who reflect their constituents’ values and who articulate a message of fiscal responsibility and a limited, yet well-defined, role for government, we can win.

What we cannot do is field only the candidates who pass “purity tests.” If we want to be successful, we cannot pose a litmus test on 10 items expecting to reflect the country at large.

As Henry Barbour, a committee member from Mississippi and former Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour’s son, noted in Wednesday’s Washington Post, “We need to stick to our conservative principles without telling folks in the Massachusetts GOP that their choice for a U.S. Senate nominee cannot receive funding because of some litmus test.”

Scott Brown was wise when he said, “This Senate seat belongs to no one person and no one political party — it belongs to the people of Massachusetts.” Each seat represents a different set of people; ignore those voters — who have demonstrated they will act when necessary — at your own peril.

Our country needs a vibrant two-party system. We’re close to having that again, but how we handle this opportunity in both Washington and across the country in candidate recruitment will determine whether or not the Republican Party is that second party.