The Republican Party’s efforts to rebrand itself are running into roadblocks on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are pressing restrictions on abortion rights, immigration and voter registration that defy the goal of reaching out to women, minority voters, and young people.
The actions threaten to undercut what was otherwise seen as a promising start at reorienting the party in the Senate, where progress on a bipartisan measure to revise immigration law holds the potential for Republicans to mend fences with Hispanic voters who spurned them in the 2012 presidential election.
“Do you turn the Titanic around in 10 seconds? No, maybe it takes more time than that,” Republican strategist Alex Castellanos said in an interview. “As long as voters see Republicans only tapping the brake pedal, they won’t trust them with the steering wheel.”
The calls for repositioning the party began after the 2012 election in which exit polls showed President Barack Obama won the women’s vote by nine percentage points, the backing of voters between the ages of 18 and 29 by 23 percentage points, and the Hispanic community by 44 percentage points. With Hispanics one of the nation’s fasting growing political constituencies, Republican strategists said the White House and ultimately some U.S. Senate seats could move beyond the party’s reach if nothing changed.
Yet, on some issues, Republicans in Congress are veering away from the suggested course correction. In the past month, the House has voted to deport young immigrants whose parents brought them to the U.S. illegally as children and to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. The House panel charged with drafting an immigration revision is moving toward taking a border security- and enforcement-only approach.
Some of the same forces are at work in the more centrist Senate as a vocal minority coalesces in opposition to a broader bill that includes a pathway to citizenship to the estimated 11 million immigrants living without authorization in the U.S.
Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a top critic of his chamber’s bill, announced plans to try to add a measure allowing states to require people to produce identification proving their U.S. citizenship before they can register to vote. And several groups affiliated with the anti-tax Tea Party, which helped propel Republicans to sweeping victories in the 2010 midterm elections, announced their opposition to the Senate legislation.
While lawmakers bucking the party leadership say they are standing on principle, some defensive political concerns are also at work.
“Every single vote they take where they’re not reading the bill and they’re disregarding the legitimate concerns of their constituents brings them a step closer to a primary challenge, and this fits in that category,” Jenny Beth Martin, the national coordinator for Tea Party Patriots, said of Republicans backing the immigration measure in a June 20 interview outside the Capitol.
She spoke after a news conference with Republican lawmakers who oppose the bill, including a group called the Remembrance Project, which memorializes the U.S.-born murder victims of illegal immigrants.
All of this comes just a few months after the Republican National Committee released an extensive report on how to resurrect the party’s fortunes. The document is titled the “Growth and Opportunity” project, yet known in grimmer shorthand as the party “autopsy.”
Republicans “must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform,” said the March 18 report, and “be inclusive and welcoming” on social issues, lest they alienate women and young people who may disagree with their stances.
A poll conducted June 12-16 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press showed that 55 percent of adults had an unfavorable view of the Republican Party, with 40 percent giving it a positive rating. For The Democratic Party, the figures were 51 percent favorable, 45 percent unfavorable. The survey’s margin of error was plus-or-minus 2.9 percentage points.
“You don’t rebrand a party overnight, and anybody who thought this was going to be happening the first six months after the election was kidding themselves,” said Neil Newhouse, a polling expert who worked on Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential bid. “We’re going to have hiccups in the road and it’s not going to go necessarily smoothly, but over time, I think voters will see changes.”
Republican officials note that the party is broader than its congressional component, and that efforts underway elsewhere could yield benefits.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus has been reaching out to women, young people and minority groups through media appearances and personal meetings. He’ll speak this week in Chicago at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials’ annual conference. And the involvement of Republicans, most prominently Florida Senator Marco Rubio, in the immigration legislation may temper the party’s hardline image on an issue of central importance to Hispanic voters.
Yet some Republicans concede the bill faces challenges inside the party, given the power of grassroots-driven interest groups and voters who have long opposed any measure granting legal status to immigrants living illegally in the U.S.
Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who is popular with Tea Party activists, announced his opposition to the Senate bill yesterday in an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union,” and called it “dead on arrival in the House.”
Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican architect of the bill, voiced the worries of many in his party should the measure fall short of enactment. “If it fails and we are blamed for its failure, our party is in trouble with Hispanics,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Kevin Madden, another former top aide to Romney, said persuading many in his party to back the effort continues to be a challenge. “It is absolutely difficult to win those folks over, and the challenge lies in convincing Republicans that the status quo is unacceptable, and that conservatives can play a role in getting a better bill,” he said in an interview. “I don’t think that the conversation’s there yet. It’s a painstaking process.”
That’s particularly true in the House, where members of both parties represent districts increasingly safe for them politically because of their partisan homogeneity. In addition, the majority of Republican districts don’t have the same demographic challenges -- including an increasing share of Hispanic voters -- that the party faces nationally.
“We certainly need to do better on a presidential level in a few years than we did this time. But at the same time, I think we need to be a party of principles and not change just because we think it’s going to get us more votes,” said Representative Steve Chabot, an Ohio Republican who opposes granting citizenship to undocumented immigrants and co-sponsored the anti-abortion bill.
“I think you stand for something and you follow through on those things,” he said. “I know that’s what my constituents expect of me.”
His district voted for Romney, 52 percent to 46 percent for Obama.
Some Republican lawmakers elected from more politically mixed areas lament the message their congressional colleagues are sending, saying it’s distracting from a more broadly appealing focus on jobs and the economy.
“Anything that diverts from that doesn’t help us, in my opinion,” said Representative Jim Gerlach of Pennsylvania, whose suburban Philadelphia district voted for Romney over Obama, 51 percent to 48 percent. “The main focus of our majority ought to be jobs, the economy, taxes and spending, and Obamacare, and when I’m back home in Pennsylvania, that’s what people are talking to me about -- not these other issues. It’s just not helpful.”
Some Republicans are concerned the resistance to change may worsen if their party does well in the 2014 elections, giving leaders a false sense of security heading into the 2016 presidential fray. Castellanos said his partisan allies could gain congressional seats next year based on discontent with Obama and probes of the White House on the 2012 terrorist attack in Libya that killed four Americans and the Internal Revenue Service scrutiny of the tax status of Tea Party groups.
“It may be a good year for Republicans, but that doesn’t mean we’re home free,” Castellanos said. “That could give us the wrong lesson for 2016, that it’s enough to say ‘no’.”
Republicans are suffering from the fate that befell Democrats in the 1970s and 1980s, when they dominated Congress by catering to party activists, yet rarely could win at the presidential level, said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
“If House Republicans only focus on the base at the expense of the political center, it’s going to make it much harder for their party’s presidential nominees,” said Schnur, a former strategist who worked on Arizona Senator John McCain’s 2000 Republican presidential bid. “This approach may be a very smart one for midterm elections -- motivating a party’s base is a very good way of maintaining a House majority. Where it becomes a challenge is heading into a presidential election.”