Real Clear Politics
Reported from Washington
by Kyle Trygstad and Mike Memoli
A year ago, in the wake of humbling losses in the presidential and congressional races, leaders of the conservative movement were debating its strategy and even its viability at the ballot box. Still, the feeling among many was that Republicans in Congress had simply ignored their conservative values and were now being punished by voters -- and that patience would be required as voters eventually found their way back.
As the annual Conservative Political Action Conference kicks off today, however, what was just a sense of optimism last year has already amplified into renewed confidence. Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, the third-ranking Republican in the House, said in an interview with RealClearPolitics that the party is back on track and expects there not only to be a Republican majority in Congress next year, but a conservative majority.
Pence has been a harsh critic of his GOP colleagues -- as well as Democrats -- since coming to Congress in 2001. A former chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, Pence railed against increased government spending under Republican leadership in several CPAC speeches over the last few years, and likened the party to a ship that had not only gone off-course -- but "run aground."
"My speech theme this year is what a difference a year makes," said Pence, who will deliver his annual CPAC speech on Friday. "My goal is going to be to bring to the eight-to-10,000 people there that a year ago I thought we were on the verge of a great American awakening -- but I had no idea."
In November 2008, Barack Obama won states Democrats hadn't even contested in decades, including Pence's home state of Indiana, which had voted Democratic just once since 1940. Now, Democrats across the country are worried for their political health, as analysts believe Republicans will pick up a substantial number of seats in the House and Senate.
Regaining the majority in Congress remains a tall order for the GOP, as Democrats hold an 18-seat edge in the Senate and 77-seat hold on the House. However, polling shows that independent voters, who played a big role in Obama's victory, are trending back toward Republicans, and Democrats in swing districts and states are in trouble.
"I think Americans have been taken aback by the aggressive, big-government liberalism of this Congress and this administration," said Pence. "But I also believe that as House Republicans have been returning to our roots of fiscal discipline and limited government, the American people have been taking a second look and they like what they see."
The candidate receiving the most attention from conservatives nationwide is Marco Rubio, a young, Hispanic, former Florida House speaker, who will give the keynote address at CPAC this morning. Rubio's Senate challenge to the more moderate and establishment-backed Gov. Charlie Crist has excited a conservative base that scoffs at the notion of the national GOP pursuing a 'big tent' majority at the expense of more conservative candidates.
"He's an unusually talented public figure and it's great to be commended, but in many respects Marco Rubio is very typical of the kind of conservative fresh faces that we're seeing step forward at every level across the country," said Pence, who endorsed Rubio over Crist earlier this month. "And I think it's a harbinger of a very conservative comeback in 2010."
Pence, himself, is extremely popular with conservatives, and there's a push for him to run for president. When asked, he wouldn't close the door to a bid in the future but maintained his focus was on helping win back Congress.
"I really believe the opportunity to elect a conservative majority to the Congress is real," said Pence. "But as I'll say Friday, it will be important for all of us to not become distracted and that we stay focused, that we put our heads down, and that we do everything in our power to restore common sense conservative principles to the majority in Washington, D.C."