All About Those 'Republican Haircut Programs'

Tom Steyer's group considers strategies to encourage less Republican voting.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus speaks at the annual RNC winter meeting January 24, 2014 in Washington, DC. Significant changes in the Republican party's nominating process and national convention schedule are being discussed at this year's meeting.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

From Fox News to the opinion section of Fox News's website, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus is ringing the alarm bells about voter suppression. Republican voter suppression. "Tom Steyer's dark money special interest group," writes Priebus, scaffolding together two terms typically deployed by the left, "[has] a new plan: suppress the Republican vote."

What's the plan? In the column, Priebus cites a September 10 memo prepared for NextGen by Democratic strategist Chris Lehane. On TV, Priebus expresses outrage that Steyer's NextGen Climate "did a study, full-blown data study, and they actually spelled out in the memo, that you can read, that their strategy is to go after Republicans and degrade and depress the Republican turnout by spreading false messages about Republicans."

Everything is true here, minus the word "false." In the memo -- like most leaked memos, it's worth a read -- Lehane asks NextGen to remember how Democrats successfully muddied the differences between Ken Cuccinelli's 2013 Virginia gubernatorial campaign, and the campaign of Democrat Terry McAuliffe. "Republican turnout in the Tri-County area," writes Lehane, referring to the state's coal region, "was impacted as the result of revelations about the Republican nominee’s support for an out-of-state energy company over local landowners — while the Republican vote over-performed throughout Virginia in 2013, the notable exception was the Tri-Counties, which underperformed by approximately 11,000 votes."

The takeaway? Lehane proposes a series of "Republican Haircut Programs" in the swing races for senator in Michigan and Iowa and governor in Florida. For example: Make Republicans waffle on Florida Gov. Rick Scott by reminding them that "his administration approved a plan to let Duke continue billing customers for $3.2 billion to pay for two failed power plants that will never generate electricity."

When I asked Lehane about the RNC's attack, he responded with characteristic aplomb. "Rennie Priebus talking about voter suppression has about as much credibility as Fat Albert offering weight loss advice, Joe Camel discussing children's health or Vlad Putin lecturing on democracy," Lehane wrote in an email. "NextGen is focused on DEPRESSING Republican turnout by showing how Republican candidates are for the powerful few." He ran through the Haircut ideas, then reiterated:

For the earth is flat Republican Party, what may be most depressing is that the head of their party seems to be as linguistically challenged on understanding the difference between DEPRESS (the implications of their policies on their own voters) and SUPPRESS (their electoral strategy) as they are when it comes to understanding what 97% of the scientists have said about climate change.

Fair enough. The difference between ramming through laws that make the polling place harder to access and ads that tell base voters why they should be less excited about a race is vast; it's like putting a boot on someone's car versus telling him to avoid all the traffic downtown today.

And yet there's a reason why "voter depression" is something campaigns recommend in private memos but don't broadcast to the press. It's unpleasant; it runs contrary to the Democratic Party's (often correct) argument that it does best when the most people are allowed to easily vote. The most highly-publicized "haircuts" are the biennial, under-the-radar campaigns that warn urban voters not to show up to the polls if they have parking tickets, or to show up and cast their ballots on Wednesday -- you know, to avoid the lines.

Nothing suggested by Lehane is comparable to the outright lies told to stymie low-information, likely Democratic votes. As Lehane says, the memo suggests "haircuts" as the third, and presumably the worst, of three options for getting NextGen candidates over the hump. It's not "voter suppression." It's just the way things work.

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