As the 2014 election cycle proceeds, it remains likely that Republicans will have a good — possibly even very good — November. If success is defined as a takeover of the Senate, the supposedly biased liberal mainstream media is pretty bullish about a GOP harvest, with the New York Times’ Nate Cohn giving Republicans a 60 percent probability of winning the Senate; the Washington Post’s Election Lab rating a GOP takeover as a 84 percent probability; and FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver projecting GOP gains of 5.7 seats (with six needed for a takeover). Nobody has talked seriously of a Democratic takeover of the House since last year; and even in state contests, where anti-incumbent sentiment should cut against GOP incumbents, Republicans could well hold or conceivably even improve their bloated margins among governors and state legislative chambers.
It’s true that public opinion surveys are not showing any 2010-style GOP “wave,” but Democrats are rightly nervous that when polls begin identifying likely voters closer to November, superior Republican “base enthusiasm” could put a thumb on the scales in their favor.
There’s a downside to GOP optimism about 2014, however: it seems to be eroding healthy fears about the party’s long-term standing, beginning with the 2016 presidential election.
As recently as last year’s famous Republican National Committee Growth and Opportunity Project report (better known as the “2012 Postmortem” report), there was a palpable sense that the GOP needed to significantly change its message and image in order to avoid another presidential defeat, and worse yet, a significant generational misalignment with young and minority voters. Here was a particularly pungent remark from the report about Hispanic voters:
If Hispanic Americans perceive that [a] GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States (i.e. self-deportation), they will not pay attention to our next sentence. It does not matter what we say about education, jobs or the economy; if Hispanics think we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies.
That warning was with respect to Mitt Romney’s “self-deportation” stance. Now in the wake of the border refugee crisis, Republicans, having spurned repeated opportunities to enact comprehensive immigration reform, are increasingly identified with support for aggressive government efforts to deport the undocumented. A recent Pew survey shows the percentage of self-identified Republican voters favoring legalization (not necessarily a “path to citizenship,” just legalization) of any undocumented immigrants dropping to a bare majority of 54 percent — and all the way down to 41 percent among Tea Party members.
A similar retrograde movement has been evident on reproductive rights issues, which the “Postmortem Report” noted as a perception problems for Republicans among both women and younger voters. After years of focusing on late-term abortions as a policy area where a majority of Americans favored some government restrictions, Republican-controlled state legislatures are rapidly enacting legislation aimed at shutting down abortion providers entirely. And the party’s recent “religious liberty” messaging has aligned the GOP with very extreme positions on access to birth control methods deemed “abortifacient.”
There’s no way to prove over-confidence is contributing significantly to such rightward trends on sensitive issues. But it would be surprising if a Republican base electorate that is constantly hearing from conservative media and GOP opinion-leaders that Obama is a failed president about to be swept into irrelevance by a GOP “wave” is in a mood to support swing-voter friendly ideological accommodations needed in the immediate future.
That could be a particularly fatal tendency in 2016, when this year’s heavily pro-Republican midterm turnout patterns and Senate landscape will be reversed. In both 2008 and 2012 the GOP managed to nominate presidential candidates with relatively moderate images and demonstrated swing-voter appeal. In both cases, the nominations were in no small part fortuitous following a demolition derby of more ideologically rigid rivals. The odds of the “most electable” candidates winning a third straight GOP nomination have been diminished by the relatively low popularity of Chris Christie (damaged significantly by “Bridgegate” and already controversial for supporting a Medicaid expansion in his state), Jeb Bush (headed for a direct collision with conservative activists for his championship of Common Core education standards) and Marco Rubio (more distant from conservative sentiment than ever as the prime Senate sponsor of “amnesty” legislation). And the odds are high that Hillary Clinton will enter the 2016 cycle in stronger condition than Barack Obama entered 2012’s.
This is not to say that Republicans are in any way doomed to defeat in 2016, much less in subsequent elections. But a party whose activists are half-convinced that insufficient conservatism is its achilles heel, and half-convinced elections yielding no ideological mandate are hardly worth winning, won’t need a lot of convincing to interpret a good or great 2014 outcome as the irresistible wave of the future.
Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.