Does the Republican Party Have to Change?

The GOP's effort to rebrand itself didn't get far—but it may not matter: It's winning anyway.
Susan Walsh/Associated Press

The members of the Republican National Committee gathered in Washington this week. On Thursday, Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and former presidential candidate, was the featured speaker. “The Democrats,” Huckabee declared, “want to insult the women of America by making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control, because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government.”

The creepy, condescending-uncle image, the retrograde attitude toward sex: Huckabee managed to illustrate exactly the phenomenon he was trying to decry, the perception that Republicans don’t know how to talk to or about women. Democrats were gleeful. Within hours, liberal groups had bombarded reporters with outraged statements, the White House press secretary had called the remark “offensive,” and MSNBC was playing the clip over and over (chyron: “HUCKED UP”). “If this is the GOP rebrand a year later, then all they’ve gotten is a year older,” gloated the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

The “rebrand” Wasserman Schultz referenced was undertaken when Republicans, smarting from the loss of the presidential election, embarked on a course of soul-searching. A report commissioned by the RNC, the Growth and Opportunity Project, would soon deliver the bitter verdict that the party was widely viewed as a bunch of “stuffy old men,” and that major changes in orientation, rhetoric, and tactics would be needed if the GOP ever wanted to win another presidential election. (Sample: “There is growing unrest within the community of Republican women frustrated by the Party’s negative image among women .... Our candidates, spokespeople and staff need to use language that addresses concerns that are on women’s minds in order to let them know we are fighting for them.”)

But while Democrats fixate on what they consider the GOP’s failed makeover, Republicans have moved on. The delegates at Thursday’s RNC meeting weren’t brooding over the party’s lack of reorientation. They were getting upbeat briefings about how far the party has come in the past year and how bright the future looks. As Massachusetts Republican committeeman Ron Kaufman told me, the time for “painful self-examination” has passed. “Now we’re implementing it, and it’s going to pay off. Everything couldn’t be better right now for us.”

He's not wrong. Without changing a thing, Republicans are very well positioned for the midterm elections this year and even for the 2016 presidential election. As the University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato recently noted, Republicans are almost guaranteed to keep the House of Representatives in November; they have about a 50-50 chance of taking the majority in the U.S. Senate; and they are likely to keep their majority of the nation’s governor’s mansions. The erosion of public trust in Obama and Democrats spurred by the botched introduction of the healthcare exchanges continues to reverberate in public polling of contests up and down the ballot, erasing the public-opinion edge Democrats gained from the government shutdown and tilting more and more contests in the GOP’s favor, according to Sabato, who on Thursday revised his ratings of three Senate contests, tilting all of them more toward Republicans.

A good year in 2014 is somewhat to be expected; the rap on the GOP is that the party can’t win presidential elections. But even there, Republicans are not doomed. The political scientist John Sides recently ran a back-of-the-envelope calculation using a model that, taking into account just three factors—economic growth, the president’s approval rating, and whether there’s an incumbent on the ballot—previously predicted the result of the 2012 election within a percentage point. (Though Republicans believed 2012 was theirs to lose, most political-science models consistently gave Obama the advantage.) If the first two factors look in 2016 the way they look now, and with no incumbent a given, Republicans will have a 64 percent chance of victory, according to the model. Political scientists will tell you that these underlying factors have a much greater influence on who wins elections than tactics or gaffes. And based on them, it is Democrats, not the GOP, who currently have an uphill battle to win the next presidential election, Sides contends.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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