Republican Rebranding? What Republican Rebranding?

The GOP says it wants to broaden its appeal and reach more Americans, but Republicans in Congress are doing everything they can to unwind those efforts.

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 18: Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus (R) talks with members of the press after speaking at the National Press Club March 18, 2013 in Washington, DC. During his remarks on a recent 'autopsy' held by the RNC on its shortcomings in the 2012 presidential campaign, Priebus announced a series of recommendations including fewer presidential debates, an earlier national convention, and community outreach programs in addition to other new initiatives.
National Journal
Beth Reinhard
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Beth Reinhard
Oct. 9, 2013, 7:43 a.m.

A year after elect­or­al de­feat, sev­en months after an am­bi­tious blue­print to mod­ern­ize, ex­pand, and win back the White House, the Re­pub­lic­an brand is still dam­aged goods.

Re­pub­lic­ans are get­ting the brunt of the blame for a gov­ern­ment shut­down that re­in­forces the neg­at­ive im­age laced through the 2012 exit polling of a party that’s ex­treme and out of touch. Im­mig­ra­tion re­form, viewed as pivotal to keep­ing pace with an in­creas­ingly di­verse elect­or­ate, is stalled in the Re­pub­lic­an-con­trolled House. As the shut­down per­sists and the debt ceil­ing crisis looms, the di­vide is widen­ing between a con­ser­vat­ive grass­roots that rel­ishes the show­down over Obama­care and a polit­ic­al es­tab­lish­ment that be­lieves the stan­doff is hinder­ing its goal of be­com­ing the gov­ern­ing party.

In its latest party-build­ing ef­fort, the RNC hos­ted a His­pan­ic Her­it­age month re­cep­tion Tues­day amid plans to dis­patch field op­er­at­ives to sev­en states with grow­ing His­pan­ic pop­u­la­tions. But against the back­drop of thou­sands of protest­ors on the Na­tion­al Mall de­mand­ing con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans take up im­mig­ra­tion re­form, it was the latest ex­ample of the na­tion­al party mak­ing pro­gress on mech­an­ics, not mes­saging.

“It’s like one step for­ward, two steps back,” said Flor­ida-based Re­pub­lic­an con­sult­ant Sally Brad­shaw, one of the co-chairs of the RNC re­view of the 2012 elec­tion. “The RNC is com­mit­ted to the is­sues we raised, but I feel per­son­ally frus­trated be­cause I still see some mem­bers of our party who just don’t get it.”

There are early signs of fal­lout in the 2013-2014 elec­tion cycle. Though Re­pub­lic­an gubernat­ori­al can­did­ate Ken Cuc­cinelli spent the last 10 days try­ing to dis­tance him­self from the shut­down, two polls re­leased Tues­day showed him fall­ing be­hind Demo­crat Terry McAul­iffe in the Vir­gin­ia gov­ernor’s race.

“He’s the first cas­u­alty,” whis­pers one prom­in­ent na­tion­al party lead­er.

Demo­crats run­ning for statewide of­fice in 2014, from likely Flor­ida gubernat­ori­al con­tender Charlie Crist to Geor­gia Sen­ate can­did­ate Michelle Nunn, are po­s­i­tion­ing them­selves to cap­it­al­ize on the shut­down with bi-par­tis­an ap­peals in main­stream me­dia.

Three of Nunn’s Re­pub­lic­an rivals, Reps. Paul Broun, Phil Gin­grey and Jack King­ston, are Re­pub­lic­an House mem­bers who voted to fund the gov­ern­ment only if the health care law was delayed. So did some of the GOP’s oth­er prom­ising Sen­ate can­did­ates, in­clud­ing Reps. Shel­ley Moore Capito of West Vir­gin­ia, Tom Cot­ton of Arkan­sas, and Bill Cas­sidy of Louisi­ana. It’s “Bill Cas­sidy’s Gov­ern­ment Shut­down,” de­clared the Louisi­ana Demo­crat­ic Party in an e-mail blast on Tues­day as­sign­ing ex­clus­ive blame.

The Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee and Or­gan­iz­ing for Ac­tion, the ad­vocacy arm of Pres­id­ent Obama’s cam­paign, are us­ing the shut­down to ham­mer Re­pub­lic­ans in tele­vi­sion spots, on-line ads, auto­mated calls, and so­cial me­dia. “Tell the tea party, enough already!” says the OFA ad.

A string of Re­pub­lic­an-weary polls is lay­ing the ground­work for the me­dia blitz. The latest United Tech­no­lo­gies/Na­tion­al Journ­al Con­gres­sion­al Con­nec­tion Poll finds two out of three Amer­ic­ans dis­agree with the Re­pub­lic­an strategy of ty­ing the health care law to fund­ing the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. A re­cent CNN poll re­por­ted 69 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans think con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans are “act­ing like spoiled chil­dren.” Re­pub­lic­ans in Con­gress hit new lows in a re­cent Quin­nipi­ac Uni­versity sur­vey that looked at ap­prov­al rat­ing and a gen­er­ic match-up against a Demo­crat­ic can­did­ate.

The Demo­crat­ic Party and Pres­id­ent Obama also are los­ing ground, but sur­vey after sur­vey shows Re­pub­lic­ans get­ting the li­on’s share of the blame.

Even Cuc­cinelli, who as the state at­tor­ney gen­er­al cru­saded to re­peal the health care law, has found him­self do­ing dam­age con­trol over the shut­down. He’s called for mem­bers of Con­gress to de­cline paychecks and for fur­loughed work­ers to get paid. He also aired a ra­dio spot de­clar­ing he “op­poses a gov­ern­ment shut­down” and made sure he was not pho­to­graphed at a re­cent event with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, whose 21-hour speech on the Sen­ate floor pre­cip­it­ated the budget im­passe.

It isn’t help­ing, said Quentin Kidd, dir­ect­or of the Wason Cen­ter for Pub­lic Policy at Chris­toph­er New­port Uni­versity, which found McAul­iffe lead­ing Cuc­cinelli by nine points in a new poll. More than one out of 10 Re­pub­lic­ans who cite the state’s busi­ness cli­mate is their biggest con­cern say they won’t vote for Cuc­cinelli.

“I think the shut­down does hurt Cuc­cinelli be­cause it’s con­sist­ent with a lar­ger nar­rat­ive that McAul­iffe has en­cour­aged, which is that he wants to force his views on people,” Kidd said. “Even though Cruz didn’t stand on stage with Cuc­cinelli, the cov­er­age linked Cuc­cinelli’s cam­paign to what’s go­ing on in Wash­ing­ton in a way that con­firms some people’s sus­pi­cions about him.”

The shut­down is also cast­ing Con­gress’s few ac­com­plish­ments this year in­to sharp re­lief. Law­makers re­newed the Vi­ol­ence Against Wo­men Act and ap­proved aid to Hur­ricane Sandy vic­tims only after over­com­ing fierce res­ist­ance from Re­pub­lic­an con­ser­vat­ives. Slash­ing food stamp fund­ing by $40 bil­lion and out­law­ing abor­tion after 20 weeks were among the only oth­er ma­jor bills that cleared the Re­pub­lic­an-led House. As mil­lions of un­in­sured Amer­ic­ans start sign­ing up un­der the new health care law, the shut­down looks like a lost cause that’s done little to pro­mote Re­pub­lic­an pri­or­it­ies of cut­ting fed­er­al spend­ing, re­form­ing en­ti­tle­ment pro­grams, and re­du­cing the na­tion­al debt.

“It’s im­per­at­ive for Re­pub­lic­ans in Wash­ing­ton to talk more about what we’re for,” said Ed Gillespie, a former chair­man of the Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee. “Giv­ing voice to an­ger and frus­tra­tion helps en­er­gize our core voters, but it doesn’t en­er­gize voters in the middle who are go­ing to re­spond more to hope and op­tim­ism than to talk of de­fund­ing, re­peal­ing and block­ing things.”

Gillespie now leads the Re­pub­lic­an State Lead­er­ship Com­mit­tee, which aims to re­cruit hun­dreds of minor­ity and fe­male can­did­ates by 2014. On Tues­day, the RSLC an­nounced that one of the most prom­in­ent His­pan­ic Re­pub­lic­ans in the coun­try, former Pu­erto Rico Gov. Lu­is For­tuno, was join­ing its board. For­tuno, who head­lined the RNC’s His­pan­ic Her­it­age re­cep­tion on Tues­day, said the party’s out­reach to the fast­est-grow­ing slice of the elect­or­ate will fall short without im­mig­ra­tion re­form passing Con­gress. Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent on-line sur­vey by the Pub­lic Re­li­gion Re­search In­sti­tute, less than three in ten His­pan­ics say they feel closer to the Re­pub­lic­an Party than they did in the past.

“If someone feels we don’t want them here, the thrust of our prin­ciples will not get through and it will be very dif­fi­cult to get a Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­ent elec­ted,” For­tuno said.

Mean­while, the of­fi­cial party ap­par­at­us is do­ing what it can to make good on some of the prom­ises made in the 97-page “Growth and Op­por­tun­ity Pro­ject” re­leased in March.

Build­ing a ground game is un­der­way in Vir­gin­ia and New Jer­sey, which will hold gubernat­ori­al elec­tions next month. The RNC hired a former Face­book en­gin­eer as its chief tech­no­logy of­ficer and opened a Sil­ic­on Val­ley of­fice. The party is also hir­ing a small army to make in­roads in the Afric­an-Amer­ic­an, His­pan­ic, and Asi­an-Amer­ic­an com­munit­ies, while Chair­man Re­ince Priebus has made a spree of ap­pear­ances be­fore minor­ity audi­ences and me­dia out­lets.

Priebus has also vowed to move up the nom­in­at­ing con­ven­tion and lim­it the num­ber of primary de­bates so the party can in­vest more time and re­sources in­to the 2016 gen­er­al elec­tion.

“At the mech­an­ic­al level there has been a lot of pro­gress and all of that is ter­ribly im­port­ant, but as far as mes­saging it’s fair to say alarm bells are ringing,” said former White House press sec­ret­ary Ari Fleis­cher, an­oth­er co-chair of the RNC re­port. “You can’t reach con­clu­sions about next Novem­ber while we’re in the middle of this fight, but our over­all im­age has still not re­covered.”

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