Jump to Any Race
National Politics|By Amy Walter, February 26, 2014

When the political conventional wisdom is overwhelmingly tilted one way, I find it more important than ever to talk to the outliers. Those people who look up at sunny skies and break out umbrellas. Today, those “outliers” are most likely to be Republicans. Even though their party is poised to hold the House and has a good chance of winning control of the Senate, these Republican umbrella carriers aren’t smiling. They worry that success in 2014 will mask the real, structural problems that Republicans need to fix before 2016. Namely, that the party doesn’t stand for much more than standing against President Obama. As important, the GOP heads into 2016 with a brand that has been deeply tarnished and not easily repaired.

To be sure, mid-term elections are a referendum on the party in the White House, not the party in control of Congress. No matter how often one side or the other rolls out the “do-nothing Congress,” attack, it’s simply not as effective as an attack on an unpopular president. To keep his troops on track in 2006 – the year Democrats won control of the House from the GOP--then-DCCC Chairman Rahm Emanuel regularly reminded them that this election was “not about them.” The election was about President Bush whose rock-bottom approval ratings hit the high 30’s in the fall of that year. Even when Republicans stumbled in the 1998 elections (becoming the first out-party to lose seats in a 6-year itch election since 1822), it wasn’t because people hated Republicans per se. It was because they really liked President Clinton. Going into the fall campaign of 1998, Clinton’s approval rating was 61 percent.

This year, with President Obama’s approval ratings in the low 40’s, it won’t be hard for Republicans to convince voters to reject the party in the White House. However, they have virtually nothing to offer voters in the way of solutions. Speaker Boehner is consumed with simply keeping his party from self-destruction. And the only thing that keeps the party together at this point is a loathing of all things Obama. Running against Obama and Obamacare may be enough to win in 2014. But, it has taken a toll on the GOP brand.

Why does it matter? Mid-term elections are not necessarily predictors of the presidential year performance. However, the winning party should be able to build on its success, not have to dig out of a hole. Regardless of their success in 2014, Republicans will start out in a hole.

Going into 2007, the un-official kick off to the 2008 election, the Democratic party had a favorable rating of 54 percent. By the summer of 2007, and six months into their tenure in the majority, Democrats maintained a healthy 51/41 favorable/unfavorable rating. Meanwhile, a year out from the unofficial kick-off to the 2016 campaign, sixty percent of Americans had an unfavorable opinion of the Republican party. Perceptions of the GOP may rise slightly as long as they avoid any more of the disastrous “shut-down-the-government” gambits. However, it’s hard to believe the image of the GOP will be close to 50 percent in 2015.

Pew Research/USA Today Polling
Date Opinion of R Party: Fav/Unfav Opinion Of Dem Party:Fav/Unfav
12/3-8/13 35/60 47/48
7/25-29/07 39/53 51/41
12/12/06 – 1/9/07 41/48 54/35
10/17-22/06 41/50 53/36
The longer the party allows itself to be defined by what it’s not, the harder it will be to define what it is for.

On one level, it makes sense for Republicans to avoid taking up any serious issues in 2014. Bringing up immigration, tax reform, or an alternative to Obamacare invites in-fighting and takes the focus off the struggles of the Democratic president. Moreover, the party nominee in 2016, not the congressional leaders of 2014, is the one who sets the agenda and the tone for the party.

However, the longer the party allows itself to be defined by what it’s not, the harder it will be to define what it is for; just as important, the harder it will be for Republicans to change the negative perceptions that voters currently have about them. For example, on the question of who voters trust to better handle the economy, Republicans have a 7-point advantage. Yet, a whopping 69 percent of Americans think that their policies favor the rich, while just 23 percent think that they are looking out for the middle class. Even without Mitt Romney on the ballot, the GOP has an “economic empathy” problem. And, ignoring it isn’t going to make it go away.

Republicans don’t need to offer up a definitive answer to fix the economy. Or even solve the immigration reform debate. But, they do need to look and act like they care about them. The rhetoric about “cutting spending” and “sealing the borders” isn’t cutting it. The more Republicans avoid identifying with solutions and action, the more they will continue to be identified by the worst elements/candidates/examples of their party. The best way to eliminate the ‘legitimate rape’ and ‘libido’ from the GOP lexicon is to replace it with an agenda that focuses on issues voters actually care about.