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Postman on Politics

Chief political reporter David Postman explores state, regional and national politics.

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August 11, 2008 9:38 AM

Top 2 Primary: The roots of Republican rebranding

Posted by David Postman

On this month’s primary ballot, 26 Republicans, including gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi, have dropped their common party identification and instead are listed as preferring the “GOP” or “GOP Party.”

It’s an obvious effort, at least on the part of some, to avoid the tarnished Republican brand. But state Republican Party Chairman Luke Esser says “GOP” and “Republican” mean the same thing - synonyms that voters understand.

I don’t think it’s going to make a dime’s worth of difference. I used it when I ran for office to refer to myself. It’s an academic question.

For academic questions, we turn to Will Mari, Times editorial intern and Friend of the Blog. After the jump, read Mari’s report on the birth of the GOP and how the archaic term may help Republicans this year.

“I have never seen a political party actually despised by so many Americans as the Republicans today,” said Bryan Jones, a professor of political science at the University of Washington and the director of the Center for American Politics and Public Policy.

By “avoiding the most toxic term,” Rossi is being politically savvy, Jones said.

“The only chance that Rossi has is to separate himself from the national party and blame Gregoire for the coming hard times,” he said. “GOP is kind of like ‘progressive’ rather than ‘liberal’ for Democrats: just a little less controversial.”

At this point, mental associations are key.

“‘GOP’ is used because any reference to ‘Republican’ brings forth images of George W. Bush as one of the worst presidents in history, while ‘GOP’ may avoid those images and leap back to the great ‘GOP presidents’ — Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt,” said Walter Williams, a professor emeritus of public policy at the UW’s Evans School of Public Affairs. Williams is a Democrat.

The history of the Republican Party’s alternative name can be traced back to the Civil War, said Margaret Pugh O’Mara, a visiting professor of American history and politics at the UW, and a Democrat. The acronym originally referred to the “Gallant Old Party” when it first appeared in the 1870s.

From the immediate post-Civil War era of Reconstruction all the way up through the turn of the century, the Republican Party was ascendant on the national stage, she said.

In this earlier, headier period of the party’s history, there was a somewhat vague but still calculated association with the Grand Army of the Republic, the patriotic organization for Union army Civil War veterans, said Bill Rorabaugh, a UW professor of 19th century American social history.

The group was closely allied with the GOP, meeting in state and national encampments every year from 1865 until the last veterans died in the 1930s, he said.

That’s also when the use of the phrase began to fade. It survives today as the legacy of the long connection between the Grand Army of the Republic and the Grand Old Party.

“There were close ties for a long time between Union army service, the GAR and the GOP,” Rorabaugh said. “A grand association, one might say.”

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