With President Obama's popularity waning, an anemic economy, and voters still concerned about the nation's fiscal health, Mitt Romney and GOP candidates down ticket were presented with a golden opportunity to win control of all three branches of government -- and they had unprecedented money advantage supporting their efforts.
Instead, Obama wins another term, the Senate stays firmly in Democrat control and Republicans lose winnable seats in the House of Representatives.
Figuring out why this happened is destined to be the focus of much debate and finger-pointing over the coming months. And while ideologues from the GOP's libertarian fringe -- including amped up bloviators on talk radio and cable news -- will be quick to identify scapegoats, blame for the GOP's failure rests squarely with them.
Instead of embracing the traditional conservatism that emphasizes responsible stewardship, prudent forethought, and protecting the interests of future generations -- which would have broader appeal -- they advance a harsh, polarizing ideology that eschews responsibility, restraint and cooperation.
For his part, Governor Romney spent almost the entire election season trying to align himself with the fringe elements of his party. The concepts of moderation and balance were nowhere to be found.
In the face of record deficits he ruled out any new revenue. On energy, he embraced fossil fuels and ridiculed renewable energy. He even opposed commonsense fuel efficiency standards for automobiles. On the environment, he blamed environmental safeguards for our economic woes, denied climate change, and questioned the value of federal public lands. The list could go on.
In trying to sell himself to the hard right fringe, and its aligned special interests, Romney marched right into what is best described as the "panderer's box." He locked himself into immoderate positions, making it impossible -- even for a practiced flip-flopper -- to effectively tack to the center for the general election.
The initial GOP advantage in U.S. Senate races was even greater than for president. The Democrats were defending endangered incumbents in the red states of Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and Montana. Republicans also had reasonable pick-up opportunities in Florida, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Virginia, Ohio and Connecticut. They were defending only two seats thought to be endangered, Maine and Massachusetts.
Then, just as in 2008 with Christine O'Donnell (DE) and Sharon Angle (NV), flawed fringe-supported candidates turned two likely GOP seats into lost causes. Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana both doomed their campaigns by speaking insensitively about the horrible crime of rape.
The GOP also had baggage-laden candidates in other Senate races. In Virginia, George Allen is best known for having his last campaign for Senate derailed by an ethnic slur. In Connecticut the party selected former WWE wrestling executive Linda McMahon, who is probably best known for her over-the-top exploits in the ring, over centrist Chris Shays. The result: two more losses.
The hyper-partisan and uncompromising GOP led House of Representatives pushed an agenda that seemed more designed to draw contrast with President Obama than to solve America's problems. Republican leaders forced vote after vote that not only had no chance of Senate passage, but that were problematic for Republicans in swing districts. That agenda likely contributed to GOP loses in Illinois, Maryland, New York and New Hampshire.
That Republicans failed to capitalize on such an advantageous political landscape, should be cause for honest reflection, not illogical scapegoating. Blaming the wrong thing will only guarantee similar failures in the future -- and perhaps plunge the party into a permanent minority status.
How does the party increase its appeal to young voters and other voter blocks that are aligning with Democrats? How does it build a winning coalition going forward?
It needs to advance a thoughtful brand of conservatism that unites rather than divides -- and reject the radicalism that now masquerades as conservatism. It needs to be skeptical of special interest agendas and pursue balanced, forward-thinking solutions to solve America's problems. And it needs to seize the moral high ground in making politics more civil and conducive to productive consensus.
That shouldn't be too tall of an order, but so far there is no sign the party is willing to stand up to its fringe.