Republicans can have a pretty good year at the ballot box in 2014 if, as the Doors sang, they can "keep [their] eyes on the road and [their] hands upon the wheel."
Democratic funders have all but given up retaking the House and are training resources on retaining the Senate, which political prognosticator Larry Sabato now puts at "50/50." They know the congressional races of 2014 will draw smaller turnouts, which favors Republicans, and that losing the Senate would consign President Obama to finishing his term with lame duck status.
It could all blow up – Republicans are famous for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. But if they can remember a few simple guidelines, they can press the advantage they enjoy now at the ballot box in November.
1) Keep the spotlight focused on Obamacare: Democrats continue to pretend otherwise, but they have begun to realize the political drag associated with the president's signature legislative achievement will far outlive the bungled rollout and balky website. Not only are the president's approval numbers near all-time lows, the approval numbers for Obamacare continue to sink as well. Today, nearly a third of Democrats oppose the law and nearly two-thirds of independents. Even Obama's loyal allies in the union movement – union leader Richard Trumka is the most frequent visitor to the White House since Obama became president – have begun to squawk. Losers – people who have lost insurance, been forced into a more expensive plan or had to change doctors or hospitals – outnumber winners, those who have benefitted from the law, by 5 to 1 or more. Those numbers may change some between now and November, but probably not much. Republicans should talk constantly about the law's failures, be ready with solutions of their own and remind voters that not a single member of their party voted for this disaster. It truly should be the gift that keeps on giving.
2) Don't default on the debt: It is entirely proper for Republicans to ask why, if the deficit is plunging and the economy expanding as much as the president's supporters insist, it is even necessary to again raise the debt limit. But they also would be foolish to draw a line in the sand on this. For once, Republican leaders in both houses of Congress seem to have this right. Develop a set of bargaining chips that all members agree on and will support and which the American people will find reasonable. Then, see what you can get, but pass the legislation. Yes, we're already $17 trillion in debt. And yes, we're borrowing 42 cents of every dollar we spend. But if Republicans lose in November because they stood their ground on this, neither of those problems can even be addressed. And, as Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Id., said, the time to vote against this spending was on the budget deal, not now.
3) Be the party of reform, not the party of no: Democrats have gained much traction in recent years by saying, "Quit telling us what you're against and tell us what you're for." We cannot and need not let that happen in 2014. Republicans have good ideas on health care, taxes, the economy and other issues, and they should do more to push those ideas. Also, the language is important. Reform, not austerity. Modernizing, not slashing. As Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has pointed out, voters are drawn to plans – or even frameworks for plans – that promote hope, reform and a brighter future. Be the alternative party, not the opposition party.
4) Be positive and hopeful on the campaign stump and avoid verbal gaffes: For many Republicans, the campaign style of Ronald Reagan has never been matched, let alone improved upon. But what was it about President Reagan? It had something to do with the policies he advocated but much more to do with how he advocated for them. He was honest and hopeful and optimistic on the campaign trail. He was sure-footed without being arrogant, confident without being boastful. He was friends with many of his political adversaries and eager to share credit with them when possible. Too many Republicans are dour on the stump. They talk about what the country must stop doing and the limits on its reach and power. Voters want to be lifted to higher places. They want bills to actually pass Congress on occasion. The momentum to pass something – anything – is what got Obamacare over the legislative hump. Find things to be for. Avoid gaffes. Admit when you don't know something. It's more endearing than you think.
5) Immigration is key, but a bad deal is worse than no deal: Again, the key is to be for something. The Senate bill? No. But Americans understand we're dealing with three key questions here: how to secure the border, who to let in and what to do about illegal aliens already here. And, thanks to Obamacare, they are rightfully skeptical of big, omnibus plans. Work on the planks where there is agreement, and seek agreement on the others. Encourage new thinking. Move the ball in small ways and offer proposals on the bigger questions. Stand strongly against the racism that seems to underlie so much of the debate, and stand ready to acknowledge this is a nation of immigrants. The base doesn't want to give away the store, but Americans recognize a problem exists and want Congress to address it.
Bonus: Don't confuse 2014 gains with the 2016 landscape: Barring a scandal that dwarfs Bridgegate in intensity and reach, Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee in 2016. She led her nearest competitor, Vice-President Biden, 73-12 in a recent poll. She will have virtually unlimited resources and an electorate far more to her advantage than in 2014. Republicans, therefore, can't confuse success this year with momentum going forward. They must resist the urge to crow and get right to work moving the center rightward, so their candidate has a chance. Her campaign asks: Are we ready for Hillary? We better be.
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