The Grand Old Party in Reverse

How the Republican reboot after 2012 became history.

Editorial cartoon satirizing the tea party.
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Elections, the saying goes, have consequences. Of course, some have more consequences than others. Consider the 2012 election – and then ponder this week's gubernatorial races. You'd imagine that the big nationwide election would do more to jar the GOP than a couple of off-year gubernatorial races. But given the right's nonreaction to 2012, reality-based Republicans must hope otherwise.

Think back a year. Given the results of the 2012 elections – Barack Obama won re-election by 4 percentage points and 5 million votes; Senate Democrats gained seats, and House Democrats drew more votes (if not more seats) than House Republicans – you would not be faulted for thinking that the GOP was in for a course correction. And, for a brief while, it seemed likely. The Republican National Committee issued a postmortem with a slew of recommendations on how to turn the party around, with a focus on reaching out to female, minority and young voters. Washington pundits declared comprehensive immigration reform inevitable because Republicans had to do something to get on the right side of Hispanic voters. That was then. Now?

"At this point, we've gone backwards because of the government shutdown," says Republican pollster Whit Ayres. "That doesn't mean we can't be resurrected in time to do very well in the 2014 elections given the gift of Obamacare. But it's hard to look at the state of the party today versus Election Day in 2012 and think we've made much progress."

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What happened? The party leaders who wanted to adjust to the facts of reality were rolled by the alliance of the tea party and the right wing's media-industrial complex, which is more interested in whipping up the base (and then fundraising off of it) than what movement conservatives like Erick Erickson derisively refer to as the "‘governing' trap." The Republican reboot was lost in a miasma of conservative windmill-tilting that culminated in the ill-conceived, predictably disastrous shutdown.

"They don't care [about polls], but they need to care," says Cook Political Report's Jennifer Duffy. "When you need to pick up as many [Senate] seats as Republicans need right now, you can't afford to have your brand hurt." As former Rep. Tom Davis, a moderate Virginia Republican, said recently, "You've had the diagnosis, and now there's the denial."

When asked whether the GOP is better off a year later than immediately after getting trounced last November, one veteran Republican lobbyist offers that sometimes a party has to hit rock bottom. "At some point you have to cleanse your system," the lobbyist says. "The question is how do you respond when you hit rock bottom?" The twin events of the dismal shutdown and this week's contrasting gubernatorial elections give the GOP a fresh chance to hit the rock bottom reset button.

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And there's some hope that the 2013 elections will have the consequences that can finally penetrate the right's bubble. Mitt Romney might have been challenging Obama in 2012, but he was also stalked by a phantasm of the right – a "true" conservative candidate that could set their hearts aflutter. The far right says "look, Romney wasn't conservative enough … you need to shut the government down over Obamacare," according to Davis. A true conservative, the theory goes, would have delivered the victory over Obama that the right wing fully expected right up until Fox News declared the president re-elected last year.

The 2013 elections, while more narrowly focused, present a starker contrast. You have conservative darling Ken Cuccinelli in the purple state of Virginia losing to Terry McAuliffe of all people; and you have New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the Republican who literally embraced Obama last October after Superstorm Sandy, winning by a landslide in a true-blue state. As pollster Ayres said when asked about this scenario last week: "It certainly presents a pair of compelling case studies whose message is obvious to all who are willing to see."