How 2014 Could Give Republicans False Hope for the Future

The GOP could take over the Senate, but it won't have vanquished its demographic demons.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
It's aggravating to read something really smart, something that I wish I had written myself. Amy Walter, my colleague at The Cook Political Report, recently wrote just such a piece—one about Republicans who worry privately that success in 2014 will leave their party with false hope for 2016: "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."
This is so true. If Republicans do gain a Senate majority, which they may very well do in November, and manage to pick up eight or more House seats, it will be because of who they are not, not because of who they are. They aren't in Obama's party, and they aren't in the party that unilaterally passed the Affordable Care Act, which, like the president, is unpopular. Republicans may win a bunch of races without measurably improving their party's "brand" and without making any clear progress among minority, young, moderate, and female voters. The fact that midterm electorates are generally older, whiter, and more conservative than their counterparts in presidential elections exacerbates the difference between the world of 2014 and the one that will exist in 2016. The Republicans can win in 2014 without having fixed their problems.
For that matter, has the GOP learned the folly of nominating exotic and potentially problematic candidates, ones who tickle the erogenous zones of the party's conservative base but offend many swing voters? Will they continue to nominate candidates who have the unhealthy habit of pulling the pins on political hand grenades before swallowing said grenades? See Akin, Todd (U.S. Senate race, Missouri, 2012); Mourdock, Richard (U.S. Senate race, Indiana, 2012); or O'Donnell, Christine (U.S. Senate race, Delaware, 2010).
Or, will exceedingly conservative primary voters continue to force mainstream Republican candidates into taking positions that can kill them in general elections? Representative Cory Gardner, the new GOP candidate in Colorado's Senate race, who is taking on incumbent Democrat Mark Udall, has recently walked back his previous support for "personhood" legislation—bills that aim to grant fertilized eggs the same protections afforded to human beings. Initiative 62 on the 2010 ballot in Colorado read: "Shall there be an amendment to the Colorado constitution applying the term 'person,' as used in those provisions of the Colorado constitution relating to inalienable rights, equality of justice, and due process of law, to every human being from the beginning of the biological development of that human being?" The initiative crashed and burned, failing 71 percent to 29 percent. It had also been on the ballot in 2008, losing that year as well, 73 percent to 27 percent.
Positions that can be right at home within a Right to Life rally, in a safely conservative congressional district, or even in a solidly conservative GOP primary, can be a huge millstone around the necks of Republican candidates in competitive general elections in many districts and states.
Given that white voters have gone from composing 89 percent of the electorate in 1992 to 72 percent in 2012—a 17-point drop in just five elections—Mitt Romney's 59 percent share of the white vote was not enough to win the general election. In the old days, it would have been plenty. You can't lose the African-American vote by 87 points (93 percent to 6 percent), the Latino vote by 44 points (71 percent to 27 percent), the Asian vote by 47 points (73 percent to 26 percent) and expect to win presidential elections.
Republicans do great among those 65 years of age and older, and well among those between 45 and 64. However, they are getting crushed among those between 18 and 29, as well as losing 30-to-44-year-olds. It is worth noting that, although some voters change their voting behavior as they get older, most shape their partisan affiliations when they are in their teens, twenties, and early thirties.
Then there is gender. Because women live longer, they are now 53 percent of the electorate, while men are just 47 percent. Democrats tend to do better among women than Republicans do among men. For example, in 2012, Obama won among women by 11 points, and Romney won among men by just 7 points. Republicans are winning a smaller slice of a smaller pie.
Taken together, these trends suggest that if the GOP were a commercial enterprise, it would be one with an unsustainable business model over the long haul. The Republican congressional leadership seems to have figured this out, but it is unclear whether this understanding has necessarily trickled down, particularly in the House.