It seemed that Republicans had a singular message for themselves after Election Day 2012: Befriend minorities. The Grand Old Party’s popularity with Latino and black voters had dwindled to modern-day lows, and leading GOP lights publicly vowed that the work to remake the party would begin immediately. If they failed, the argument went, last year’s debacle would metastasize into political irrelevance.
But fresh hope among party strategists of retaking the Senate has bumped that existential crisis to the background in favor of a campaign plan aimed, yet again, at winning white voters.
Indeed, an early examination of the party’s 2014 efforts shows that Republicans have yet to begin writing new pages for their old playbook. Efforts to expand the map by fielding candidates in diverse states have so far been stymied. And, in any case, those races have been relegated to the second tier in favor of more-lucrative opportunities. The GOP’s midterm strategy will rely heavily on whites, especially those without a college education, and particularly in rural states where its presidential candidates win easily.
It’s not just recruitment, either. The congressional GOP’s message and agenda during the first half-year of President Obama’s second term speak to a party that—with the exception of immigration reform—seems content to regain power by focusing on red, not purple, states.
Because of a midterm map that tilts the party’s way, the strategy will likely succeed. But the short-term gain risks diverting Republicans from long-term reforms, making it a dangerous gamble for a party that by its own admission needs an overhaul. Irrelevance won’t come next year, but it very well might arrive by 2016. Even if Republicans manage to retake the Senate majority this cycle, they’ll likely lose it in 2016 when minority turnout increases and the Senate map shifts to a deluge of blue-state elections.
The most glaring example of the party’s struggle is in Senate recruitment. Here, the GOP has watched itself scramble to find strong contenders in states with a high Latino or African-American presence—in some cases, they haven’t had anyone of note emerge at all. In Virginia, for example, a state Obama won twice thanks in large part to its multiracial makeup, no serious Republican has stepped up to challenge Sen. Mark Warner. The reluctance could be chalked up to the popular Warner’s own formidable standing in the Old Dominion, but the dynamic has repeated itself elsewhere.
New Mexico, which President George W. Bush won less than a decade ago, is all but off the playing board for Republicans. And in Colorado, which like Virginia is one of the country’s preeminent presidential battlegrounds, Republicans are openly aghast at the lack of options after Rep. Cory Gardner last month passed up a chance to take on Democratic Sen. Tom Udall. “I have never seen a situation like this where an incumbent looks so vulnerable with no activity on the Republican side,” Dick Wadhams, a Republican consultant and former state party chair, told National Journal.
The trio of states have something in common: Whites there made up less than 80 percent of the vote in 2012. More generally, the GOP has also seen recruiting failures in Iowa, Michigan, and Minnesota, three states that, while not particularly diverse, suggest that the Republican Party is struggling to convince candidates they can win outside of deep-red states.
It’s common for parties to lack a lineup of strong recruits 18 months before the general election. They could yet emerge—the National Republican Senatorial Committee has vowed to expand the map of competitive races into otherwise blue states. But the failures stand out largely because they’re so distinct from the GOP’s success in red states.
Republicans, who are targeting all seven red-state seats currently represented by Democrats, have already found strong contenders in South Dakota (former Gov. Mike Rounds), West Virginia (Rep. Shelley Moore Capito), and Louisiana (Rep. Bill Cassidy). They’re likely to find another one in Arkansas, where Rep. Tom Cotton is expected to run.
To many Republicans, targeting those races is exactly what they should be doing. Concerns about the GOP’s long-term viability are secondary, they say, to the straightforward goal of retaking the Senate. “The NRSC is doing the job it needs to, which is focusing on this cycle and finding a path to get Republicans back to the majority,” said one senior Republican strategist, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “The long term for them is 2014.”
It’s not just the Senate where Republicans are zeroing in on heavily white populations. The House GOP’s top targets include an array of longtime Democrats representing largely rural areas, such as Reps. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, and John Barrow of Georgia. That these races lead the GOP target lists can explain, at least in part, why the party has pursued an agenda largely aimed at its base. The GOP’s primary messages to date have been to repeal President Obama’s health care law, assail the president for the scandals that have gripped the White House, and oppose any gun-control expansion—issues that rouse the conservative base but fail to attract most minority voters.
The strategy could lead to success next year because of the favorable map and a midterm turnout dynamic in which older, white conservatives traditionally make up a larger percentage of the vote. But it could deceive the party into thinking that last year’s election was a fluke. “If the Republicans do reasonably well in the 2014 elections, that will be seen as further evidence they don’t need to move to [the] center,” said Guy Molyneux, a Democratic strategist. “The dynamics of an off-year election and a particularly good map for them could yield a lot of strong outcomes even if they do move to the right. That will be seen as vindication of the idea that going right is really the best electoral strategy.”
In other words, what will work in 2014 could end up costing the GOP soon thereafter.