A year ago Tuesday, the Republican National Committee released an exhaustive report taking stock of the party’s health after Mitt Romney’s devastating loss to President Obama in 2012. Shoving aside months of hollow talking points about GOP strength in the runup to the 2012 vote, the assessment was brutally honest. The party, the autopsy contended, had been “driving around in circles on an ideological cul-de-sac,” Congress needed to pass immigration reform or “our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only,” and Republicans had to rethink gay rights since “for many younger voters, these issues are a gateway into whether the Party is a place they want to be.”
One year later, the party has made uneven progress at best in expanding its appeal to minorities, women, immigrants and LGBT Americans even as it is poised for potentially big gains in the November midterm elections.
Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz held a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, where one year ago RNC chair Reince Priebus debuted the autopsy, to gloat over the GOP's lack of progress on its own goals.
“Three hundred sixty-five days later, all the Republican Party is is another year older,” she said Tuesday.
The DNC released an accompanying report highlighting comments from Republican lawmakers and candidates in all 50 states that they said ran counter to the party's outreach goals, from Iowa Rep. Steve King’s remarks calling immigrants drug smugglers with “calves the size of cantaloupes” to Mike Huckabee’s January charge that Democrats want women to think “they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government.”
Also Tuesday, Priebus told reporters at a Christian Science Monitor event that 2014 would be “a tsunami election" for Republican candidates and “a disaster for Democrats.” He added that Obamacare's struggles would help the party win back young and female voters.
There’s some truth to both party leaders’ assessments. As Priebus indicated, Republicans are indeed better positioned than ever for midterm gains thanks to a combination of President Obama’s sinking approval ratings and a midterm election cycle that typically favors the party out of power. But Wasserman Schultz was also correct that the GOP effforts to rebuild as a national party have largely sidestepped the grave concerns identified in the autopsy.
Immigration reform, for example, is stalled in the House amid a conservative backlash to granting legal status to undocumented immigrants. If Speaker John Boehner doesn’t bring up further legislation, the only major votes on the issue in the House this session will be an amendment to block President Obama’s decision to halt deportations for young undocumented immigrants and a bill last week that would empower Congress to sue the White House to restart the removals.
On gay rights, the party has split in recent weeks over "religious liberty" legislation in several states that would allow people to deny services to gay couples. Last month, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, with the support of 2012 presidential nominee Romney and 2008 nominee John McCain, vetoed one such bill in Arizona, where it had passed out of the GOP-controlled state Legislature.
The party has run into problems recruiting female candidates despite a high-profile project aimed at doing just that. And, as the DNC’s report gleefully details, there are plenty of Republican politicians auditioning to be the next Todd Akin, the 2012 GOP Missouri Senate candidate who coined the term "legitimate rape." The RNC’s autopsy warned the party “must in fact and deed be inclusive and welcoming” when it came to social issues.
As for African American outreach, ongoing efforts by state legislatures and governors to implement new voting restrictions, from ID cards to fewer early voting days, are still a major drag on the occasional stab at outreach by prominent Republicans.
Most ominously, young voters are not just more ethnically diverse, but more liberal than any other current voting generation, according to a detailed study put out this month by the Pew Research Center. Meanwhile, the most conservative voters today are also part of the oldest and most rapidly dwindling age cohort, raising the possibility that progressives’ electoral ascendance is only just beginning.
All of these problems, however, are most relevant further down the line. Midterm election voters skew older and whiter and there are few swing states this year where Republicans desperately need to make up ground with young, minority, or LGBT voters to win. Priebus acknowleged this tension between short term and long term strategy in an interview with Politico this week.
“We have ‘the tale of two parties’ that we’re contending with,” Priebus said. “We’ve got a midterm party that can’t lose, and we’ve got a presidential party that’s having a hard time winning."
That means demographic danger still looms even if the GOP recaptures the Senate and makes gains in the House in 2014, just as massive 2010 gains presaged a dominant Democratic performance in 2012. The question is whether party leaders will pivot from the midterms to the more dramatic rebuild called for by the autopsy, or if they'll use short term success as another excuse to rally behind the base once again.