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.

At Thursday’s RNC meeting, delegates got closed-door briefings on all the ways the GOP has upped its game in the past year. The RNC has been raising money at a record clip, enabling Chairman Reince Priebus to fulfill his goal of staffing an unprecedented national political operation. There are more than 160 field staffers living and organizing in 26 states, and they’ll be in all 50 by the end of the year. There are Hispanic outreach staffers in Colorado, Asian-American staffers in California, African-American organizers in Detroit, a youth director in Pennsylvania. The chairman of the Alaska Republican Party, Peter Goldberg, marveled to me that there are now full-time-staffed RNC field offices in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau, with more on the way. “That’s never existed before,” he said.

Republicans are also investing tens of millions of dollars in their data, digital, and Internet operations, opening an office in Silicon Valley and hiring numerous tech-savvy staffers. Meanwhile, they're undertaking a series of picayune but potentially consequential changes to the presidential nominating process. On Thursday, the RNC's rules committee approved a plan to allow Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada to hold primaries or caucuses in February, with the rest of the states awarding delegates at a more rapid clip than before—hoping to avoid the drawn-out slog that the party believes hurt Romney in 2012. Republicans plan to hold their 2016 convention in June or July rather than around Labor Day, giving the nominee more time to campaign and raise money for the general election. (Both parties' efforts to control the nominating calendar have been unsuccessful in the past, as states jump ahead out of self-interest and ignore the largely nominal penalties; we'll see if this round is any different. Lest you forget, the 2012 Iowa caucuses were held on January 3. The political reporters, candidates, and campaign staffers who spent New Year's in Des Moines have not forgotten.)

Democrats roll their eyes at these efforts—see, they say, Republicans think they can dress up the same old ideas with fancy Facebook doodads and slick new slogans, but they’re not fundamentally changing what it is they’re offering in policy and philosophical terms. But to Republicans, the idea that they would change what they stand for was always oversold. The Growth and Opportunity Project’s only policy recommendation was immigration reform—which, granted, hasn’t happened, blocked by House Republicans, though it still could get done this year. The bulk of the report, though, focused on changing the party’s image and effectiveness through rhetoric and tactics.

If Democrats thought “rebranding” meant the GOP was suddenly going to embrace all of their ideas, Henry Barbour told me, they thought wrong. “We’re the conservative party, they’re the liberal party,” said Barbour, the Republican committeeman from Mississippi, who served on the Growth and Opportunity Project task force. “That’s the way it is and that’s the way it’s going to be. We said we need to articulate conservative principles in a way that’s inclusive and loving as opposed to shrill and strident. That doesn’t sell.”

Enough progress has been made, and enough breaks have gone their way, that Republicans feel good about their chances. “That doesn’t mean somebody isn’t going to stick their foot in their mouth from time to time,” Barbour said—like Huckabee did on Thursday. But for 2014 and 2016, he had this to say: “Bring it on.”