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How Republicans came to loathe the head of their own party


If there’s a silver lining for Florida’s junior senator, it’s that he doesn’t have to face voters for three years, an eternity in politics. Despite approval ratings in the 30s, there’s still plenty of time for Mel Martinez to rehab a battered public image. More important, he could conceivably repair an eviscerated relationship with the people who were his staunchest supporters: Florida conservatives.

These are the folks he pandered to on the 2004 campaign trail, when he jostled with GOP rival Bill McCollum over who was more against gay rights. These are the votes he wanted when he aped President George W. Bush’s positions on the war and “family values.” The Martinez we knew years ago – a moderate, pragmatic Orange County chairman – took a back seat to the new Martinez, an unflinching Bush sycophant.

Last year, after the Republicans took a shellacking at the polls, Bush entrusted his former U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development secretary with fixing the GOP brand and made him head of the Republican National Committee. He was supposed to unify the party and broaden its reach, particularly to the country’s burgeoning Hispanic population. As a Cuban immigrant with an inspiring up-by-the-bootstraps life story, Martinez seemed a natural fit.

Things didn’t go as planned. Since he took over in January, Martinez has ridden herd on a spectacular implosion of the Republican Party, fostered by a nasty, racially tinted revolt among the base. The issue is Bush’s twice-failed immigration plan, which conservative critics deemed “amnesty” because it afforded illegal workers a “path to citizenship.”

And Martinez, who helped negotiate the bill with Sen. Ted Kennedy, is caught in the crossfire.

“This bill would have stripped the United States of its sovereignty,” says Dewey Wallace, a 50-year-old Orlando Republican self-described “I.T. geek.” “It would have been the equivalent to the issues that brought about the Civil War, like the Dredd Scott decision [an 1857 pro-slavery U.S. Supreme Court ruling].”

Wallace was so enraged with Martinez’s immigration policy – he describes himself as “shaking with anger” – that on June 18, he created a website:

As the name suggests, the website’s mission is straightforward. Wallace wants to recall Martinez from the U.S. Senate. “The sad truth seems to be that there is a powerful and wealthy special interest group for everyone but Americans, and if we do not work together as Americans then we will suffer the consequences as individuals,” Wallace writes on his website. “Perhaps it is as simple as the Senator may have forgotten that he is supposed to protect and defend the Constitution as he pledged in his oath of office.”

Wallace’s quest is an unlikely one – there’s no provision in state or federal law for removing a sitting senator, and he acknowledges that fact – but it underscores the antipathy Martinez faces within the party he’s leading. Within weeks of the site’s launch, Wallace says he was receiving 300 friendly e-mails a day.

“There’s an army of people ready to work on a recall campaign,” he says.

His site has been promoted by right-wing bomb-thrower Michelle Malkin and, locally, by 540 WFLA-AM talk show host Bud Hedinger. If Hedinger’s callers are any indication, Martinez’s support among the GOP faithful has all but disintegrated.

The grass roots are burning, and it’s not just Wallace’s site. Elsewhere in the blogosphere, there’s a site called that proclaims he’s “the wrong choice for RNC Chairman” and says that “Mel Martinez is Spanish for Harriet Miers,” a reference to the Bush Supreme Court pick conservatives knocked off in 2005.

This site’s blog gleefully noted a May Washington Times story reporting a “sharp decline in contributions from RNC phone solicitations,” which they blamed on the immigration bill, and hence, Martinez.

On June 27, a group of conservative Arkansas Republicans called the Arkansas Republican Assemblies issued an open letter asking Martinez to resign from the RNC. “There are millions upon millions of illegal aliens in the country,” the letter says. “Please do not support legislation that would make them LEGAL aliens or U.S. citizens. … [I]f you persist in supporting this bill, I implore you to resign as general chairman of the RNC.”

Martinez fanned the flames of disenchantment with his public comments. To wit, a June 3 op-ed in the Orlando Sentinel: “To those who choose to ignore the problem, call any effort to address it ‘amnesty,’ or politicize potential solutions, I would say, provide a solution; provide an idea for securing the borders, bringing 12 million people out of the shadows, and answering the labor needs of our nation. … Those who choose humanity over divisive rhetoric will be rewarded with a country that is stronger, more productive and more enduring as we forge ahead in this great experiment of democracy.”

Later that month, after the bill died, he told a gathering of Hispanic officials in Orlando, “The voices of negativity now have a responsibility to come up with an answer.”

Those “voices of negativity” didn’t take kindly to Martinez’s remarks. One commenter on the popular far-right site summed up the reaction nicely: “Screw you, Mr. Chairman.”

Another commenter wrote: “Howzabout every registered Republican marches down and changes to Independent next Tuesday? This condescending A**hat needs to be kicked out of the helm or else we need a NEW party.”

Martinez’s rhetoric “made it so much worse,” Wallace says.

Martinez’s Senate office did not return phone calls by press time.

It’s impossible to quantify how deep the vitriol runs, or whether it will dry up before Martinez seeks re-election in 2010. But it’s by no means a stretch to say that the first six months of Martinez’s tenure as RNC chief have been an unqualified disaster.

When he took over, Martinez defined his mission: “To be the party of the future means that we also have to be a party that opens the door wide open so that all Americans feel welcome.”

For the Republican base, it seems that door is open a bit too wide for comfort.
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