GOP could turn off independent voters

Republicans last fall stressed economic issues nationally and in many states, vowing to focus on jobs, curbing government spending and scrapping President Barack Obama’s health plan.

Voter exit polls showed the economy by far the top issue.

Since winning office, however, Republicans also have pressed a more ideological agenda, including efforts that would mainly impact traditionally pro-Democratic constituencies like women, young voters, organized labor and Hispanics.

As part of their effort to curb domestic spending, House Republicans voted to bar funds for groups with liberal images like Planned Parenthood and National Public Radio and for financing presidential elections.

Many GOP-controlled state legislatures sought to limit women’s abortion rights, curb benefits and organizing rights of state employees, make voting harder and enact new restrictions on illegal immigrants.

Losing the advantage

The ultimate impact remains unclear, but some polls indicate this is hurting national and state Republicans. A Pew Research Center poll showed Republicans have lost their advantage as the party better able to deal with the federal deficit.

Ohio and Wisconsin surveys showed GOP Govs. John Kasich and Scott Walker lost support after they sought to curb public employee unions. National polls showed most Americans oppose cutting benefits and limiting bargaining rights of public employees.

Like the Democrats after 2008, Republicans may be antagonizing independents and energizing key opposition groups in a way that could damage them in 2012. A recent Gallup Poll showed approval of Congress lowest among independents.

When Wisconsin’s legislature passed Walker’s bill to limit collective bargaining rights of state employees, AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka said he deserved the “Mobilizer of the Year award.”

Newly elected or expanded GOP majorities are pressing these non-economic issues:

Abortion: In many states, including Texas, Republican majorities are trying to reduce or prevent abortions. Both Texas chambers have passed legislation requiring a woman seeking an abortion to have a sonogram.

Other states are moving more directly to prevent abortions, as in a Minnesota proposal to bar them after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Others aim at financing of abortions: a Florida measure would bar private insurers from covering abortion in plans partly or fully paid by government funds.

Federal law already bans using U.S. funds for abortions. But sponsors of a House amendment barring money for Planned Parenthood family planning programs said they were motivated by its role in financing abortions.

Voting: Thirty-three states are considering new moves to curb what sponsors contend is a system vulnerable to fraud, said the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

A pending Texas bill would require voters to show an official photo identification, which opponents say would limit voting by the elderly, ailing and poor. A similar North Carolina measure might reduce voting by African-Americans, whose large 2008 turnout helped Obama carry the state, The Washington Post reported.

College students

Other states would bar college students from voting where they attend school. “Voting as a liberal. That’s what kids do,” said New Hampshire House Speaker William O’Brien.

Immigration: Republican majorities have pushed tougher measures against illegal immigration that foes say could also impact legal immigrants, including many Hispanics. But The New York Times reported that, in many states, business interests oppose further crackdowns.

Some states have adopted measures like the Arizona law requiring police to ask the status of persons picked up for suspicion of crimes. But Utah modified its version by easing the requirement for lesser crimes and added a guest-worker program permitting hiring of illegal immigrants.

Voters won’t render a verdict on these efforts until 2012 or 2014. But some Republicans may well pay a price for not concentrating on economic issues.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

Copyright 2011 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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