Rand Paul, senator and possible presidential contender from largely white and rural Kentucky, wasn't targeting poor black voters in Detroit when he opened a Republican Party office there last month. Neither were Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor when they talked about poverty in speeches this week.
This onslaught of Republican poverty messaging is actually aimed at a more diverse and middle-class audience. It reflects recognition among GOP leaders that their electoral success increasingly depends on softening the party's image and closing the empathy gap.
"Clearly, it's important that women and minority voters hear these messages, because they want to see leadership and compassion," said Republican strategist Katie Packer Gage, a top Mitt Romney adviser who now works on outreach to female voters. "Some of the rhetoric in the last few years has caused parts of the electorate to be a little bit disenfranchised. But the core Republican philosophy about increasing opportunity is something that resonates, and we just have to get back to that."
The GOP's unusual attention to poverty also offers voters a compelling counterpoint to the escalating Democratic line of attack against income inequality. President Obama recently called it "the defining issue of our time," hammering Republicans for opposing minimum-wage hikes, cutting off unemployment benefits, and proposing food-stamp cuts.
But while Obama emphasized "income inequality" in his speech in a struggling District of Columbia neighborhood, Rubio stressed "income mobility" Wednesday in a chandeliered room of the Capitol. The messaging is deliberate and as different as their parties' core beliefs and constituencies.
Income inequality suggests that the gap between rich and poor is an institutional problem. To Democrats, individuals are not to blame for their circumstances, and government needs to offer solutions. That's a message that appeals to the party's liberal base. In contrast, income mobility reflects the Republicans' trademark up-by-your-bootstraps philosophy that says individuals who work hard should be able to rise —if Washington stays out of the way.
It's the difference between a safety net and a ladder. Rubio cast the 50-year-old "War on Poverty" launched by President Johnson as a failure and called for the states to take over federal programs for the needy.
"They help people deal with poverty, but they do not help people emerge from poverty," Rubio said. "The only solution that will achieve meaningful and lasting results is to provide those who are stuck in low-paying jobs with the real opportunity to move up to better paying jobs."
The messenger matters as much as the message. Unlike Romney, a wealthy corporate executive and the son of a former governor, Rubio comes from a Cuban-immigrant, working-class family. His mother worked as a maid and a store clerk; his father was a bartender.
The freshman senator's compelling biography is a big reason why many Republicans see him as a future presidential candidate. Ryan, who hails from a working-class, Midwestern town, has called antipoverty crusader and former Housing Secretary Jack Kemp a mentor. Tapped by Romney to be his vice presidential nominee, Ryan was eager to campaign in poor neighborhoods but was limited to giving a speech on poverty in Cleveland and visiting a mostly black, private Christian school in Detroit.
"Democrats did a good job in 2012 of painting Republicans as people born with silver spoons in their mouths, but that's not as easy to do with people like Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio giving the message," Gage said. "Republicans have a huge opportunity here."
Cantor's remarks this week at the Brookings Institution promoted school choice as a remedy to breaking the poverty cycle. The speech reflects the same strategy that brought Romney to a Philadelphia school during the 2012 campaign. The GOP nominee wasn't stumping for urban, low-income votes; he was telegraphing his concerns about educational opportunity to suburban women, minorities, and other swing voters. Cantor was trying to reach the same audience with his speech one year ago on "making life work" that sought to offset the party's hard line on fiscal austerity.
Ryan is scheduled to address poverty in an interview Thursday night with NBC anchorman Brian Williams.
"It is a message not just to those living in poverty but to those who are living a rung or two above it," said Republican pollster Glen Bolger. "Those are the people most likely to hear the message."
Politicians have long ignored the poorest Americans, in part out of expedience. Voter turnout among the poor is much lower than participation among middle-class and wealthy voters. In the 2012 presidential election, turnout ranged from 46 percent among people earning less than $20,000 annually, to 63 percent among $40,000-to-$49,000 income earners, to 80 percent among people making more than $150,000 a year, according to the census.
Exit polls found that 59 percent of the electorate earned more than $50,000 and 41 percent earned less than that. President Obama won a strong majority of the lower-income group.
Despite a heralded makeover that the national Republican Party began nearly one year, a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found the Democratic Party held a 28-point lead on the question of showing "concern and compassion for people."
"Republicans are diving into the conversation because they know they can't let Democrats continue to corner the market on income inequality in 2014," said Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher, who worked on both of Obama's White House campaigns. "They have got to get out and compete for new voters or they're not going to grow as a national party."
This article appears in the January 10, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.