To much acclaim, the Republican National Committee released its road map for reform in March, emphasizing that the path to success called for moderating the party's position on immigration, courting a more diverse set of officeholders, and building the GOP around pragmatic governors rather than polarizing members of Congress.
Three months later, those recommendations seem to have already been forgotten. Party leaders in Washington anonymously rebuked New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for his self-interested scheduling of a Senate special election, treating a rare blue-state conservative governor like a pariah. As the debate on immigration heats up in Congress, the majority of House Republicans cast a symbolic vote rejecting President Obama's executive order to end deportations of young people brought to this country illegally as children. In Massachusetts, the party nominated a Hispanic military veteran who is within striking distance of winning a Senate seat, but few major donors are giving money to his campaign.
"This is the world's longest psychotherapy session. Everyone's trying to talk their way through what happened in 2012. The more they talk, the more they enjoy the therapy session," said Republican strategist Brad Todd, who is working for Gabriel Gomez, the GOP nominee in the Bay State.
The composite is a party stuck in the status quo despite its leaders' public hand-wringing. Much of the desire for change is coming from the top, while the more-populist conservative grassroots—skeptical of wide-ranging legislation and disdainful of pragmatic problem-solvers—are pulling in another direction.
The disconnect is on full display in this month's Massachusetts special election, which features Gomez, a former Navy SEAL pitching himself as a new kind of Republican who is moderate on gun control, immigration, and the environment. He's just the type of nominee the Republican leadership is looking for—especially in a deeply Democratic state—and public polls show he has a chance against Democratic Rep. Edward Markey, a 37-year Capitol Hill veteran. Yet Gomez hasn't won the enthusiasm of the donor class or received much assistance from any outside Republican groups, including the establishment-centered American Crossroads and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "The moderate donors want to be certain their investment is going to pay off. The conservative donors want to make sure the candidate won't do something they disagree with," Todd said. "Add all that up, what it comes down to: People are scared to engage."
Another big election in 2013 is in New Jersey, where Gov. Christie is well positioned to win a second term despite running in a solidly Democratic state. But among Republican officials in Washington over the past week, he's being branded a traitor because of his scheduling of a special election to fill the seat of the late Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg. Christie picked a date in October, ensuring that the race won't interfere with his own November election—but also alienating Republicans who hoped to make an aggressive push for the Senate seat. In the interim, Christie appointed state Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa, who is not running for the seat. With the election just four months away, Republicans didn't have enough time to recruit a competitive candidate. (Steve Lonegan, a conservative who unsuccessfully challenged Christie in the 2009 gubernatorial primary, is expected to be the party's standard-bearer for the Senate.)
Christie's allies say the carping overlooks the fact that the governor faced few good choices. He could boost Democratic turnout by scheduling the special election in November or likely lose a messy court battle if he tried to engage in a partisan fight over delaying it until 2014. Neither would burnish his standing as one of the rare center-right Republicans who's as popular with independents and Democrats as he is within his own party.
Christie's broad appeal could make him a potentially potent force in the 2016 presidential election—the straight-talking, blue-state conservative governor who has built politically savvy relationships with Democrats, including President Obama (on hurricane recovery), Newark Mayor Cory Booker (on education reform), and several state legislative leaders (to pass his landmark pension reforms). It's those very relationships, particularly his working partnership with Obama, that have soured his relationship with the base, however. And it's his desire to protect his standing in New Jersey that has burned bridges with party chiefs in Washington. But there's no denying Christie has made himself a widely popular Republican, the type that's in short supply these days within the party.
"There's a cognitive disconnect between what we need and what we have right here in front of us in New Jersey. They're missing the connection," one Christie ally said. "When they say 'pragmatic,' it sounds great on paper, but not in reality. Conservatives can't stand the fact he had a productive relationship with President Obama in the wake of Sandy."
Meanwhile, the most significant gap between the RNC's recommendations and the GOP reality remains on the issue of immigration. The dissonance is less about individual lawmakers' positions on the comprehensive immigration reform being debated in the Senate than the tonal insensitivity the party often conveys to Hispanic voters.
Case in point: Last week, Rep. Steve King of Iowa, an immigration hard-liner, cosponsored an amendment to defund the program Obama initiated that allowed children of illegal immigrants to remain in the United States. King's rhetoric on immigration was considered so politically toxic that Senate Republican strategists urged him to stay out of Iowa's Senate race, fearing he could cost them a battleground seat. But all but six House Republicans voted for his legislation, including most members in swing districts.
"It reinforces a tone of insensitivity that is just beyond baffling," said one senior Republican official.
The party's own political and policy recommendations are falling on deaf ears. The establishment isn't fully getting behind a compelling blue-state Senate candidate out of fear that its money could go to waste. The grassroots are driving even pragmatic conservative representatives well to the right of public opinion on immigration. And both are rebuking their most popular governor even though he boasts conservative credentials. Welcome to the GOP, circa 2013.