Republicans: Rebranding? Never Mind!

Chairman of the Republican National Convention Reince Priebus addresses the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2012. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
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As we slog through the 2014 election cycle, there’s a term we’re hearing less and less about among Republicans: “rebranding.”

Alert readers probably remember a time in the not too distant past — particularly just after the 2012 elections — when some variation on that word was all the rage. Yes, there were arguments about whether the remodeling of the GOP involved mere mechanics and sloganeering, or something a bit deeper, and there was significant disagreement as to the principal target of fresh Republican thinking: Hispanics, young voters, women, or even the restive Tea Party “base.” But aside from those who chose simply to blame Mitt Romney for the 2012 defeat, there was general agreement that something needed to happen to expand or intensify the GOP’s electoral appeal before the next presidential cycle, and the midterms were regarded as a fine opportunity for a test run.

Though there were plenty of essays and even manifestos published on this subject, the most extensive (and most discussed) was actually prepared by the RNC’s own “Growth and Opportunity Project” and released in March of 2013. It bluntly contrasted the performance of the GOP in presidential and non-presidential elections and argued that the national party’s image had to change, even if that meant thinking beyond the alleged perfection of the Reagan legacy. Here are a few pertinent passages with how they have or have not been implemented in the midterm cycle:

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….

We are not a policy committee, but among the steps Republicans take in the Hispanic community and beyond, we must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only.

Today even the most optimistic immigration reform advocates in both parties agree that comprehensive reform will die this year at the hands of a House GOP leadership that’s afraid to bring the subject up. Attacks on “amnesty”—increasingly defined as any sort of legalization process for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country—have been a conspicuous part of several successful GOP primary campaigns, including the one that just toppled House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

When it comes to social issues, the Party must in fact and deed be inclusive and welcoming.

If we are not, we will limit our ability to attract young people and others, including many women, who agree with us on some but not all issues.

This call for moderation on cultural issues like abortion and same-sex marriage has been followed only to the extent that some GOP candidates talk about them a bit less. But only some of them: Leading “Republican Establishment” candidates for the Senate like Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Joni Ernst of Iowa have conspicuously identified themselves with the most extreme positions on these issues. Republican-governed states continue to pass legislation aimed at shutting down abortion clinics, and judges who defend marriage equality are still being subjected to attempted “purges.” And the entire GOP has managed to identify itself with a “religious liberty” doctrine that treats commonly used contraceptives as morally equivalent to late-term abortions.

About the most you can say about Republican “rebranding” on social issues is that GOP candidates have been trained not to publicly lecture rape victims about their responsibility to carry pregnancies to term.

Another consistent theme that emerged from our conversations related to mechanics is the immediate need for the RNC and Republicans to foster what has been referred to as an “environment of intellectual curiosity” and a “culture of data and learning,” and the RNC must lead this effort.

Though the report was talking about the willingness to learn from election analysis instead of coming up with conspiracy theories to explain defeats, I think it’s safe to say that “an environment of intellectual curiosity” isn’t the first term that comes to mind generally about a Republican Party that dismisses climate science and encourages taxpayer support for sectarian schools.

This trend in early, absentee, and online voting is here to stay. Republicans must alter their strategy and acknowledge the trend as future reality, utilizing new tactics to gain victory on Election Day; it is imperative to note that this will be a critical cultural shift within the Party. Additionally, early voting should be factored into all aspects of political strategy, messaging and budgeting so that we understand that we are no longer working in an environment where 72-hour GOTV efforts will determine an election outcome.

Instead of embracing early voting, Republicans continue to make every effort to restrict it. Hostility to an expanded franchise was best illustrated by the angry reaction of Republicans when Sen. Rand Paul suggested Voter ID initiatives were alienating minority voters.

I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that the authors of the 2013 report didn’t seem to have in mind a Republican Party focused on presidential “scandals” and still arguing over the best way to kill Obamacare and plough and salt the ground forever.

But the bottom line is that Republicans appear to have decided to rely on a wildly favorable landscape, a built-in midterm turnout advantage, and of course money, to make predictable gains this November. Perhaps then the fear of another presidential loss may bring back talk of “rebranding,” but it’s just as likely you’ll hear conservatives arguing that a successful 2014 means the party doesn’t actually need to do anything different going into 2016 other than to rally the base, chip away at Hillary Clinton’s popularity, and choose an attractive presidential candidate. And if the base isn’t excited enough, there’s always impeachment.

Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at theProgressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.

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