2014 or 2012? Deja vu for the GOP
By: Anna Palmer
January 25, 2014 07:01 AM EST
A Republican headliner drew fire for mentioning contraception.
The billionaire Koch brothers plotted their next big moves in the California desert.
And a conservative group threw its support behind a tea party candidate challenging a veteran lawmaker.
It was déjà vu for GOP this week in the world of conservative politics.
After the 2012 election, establishment Republicans promised things would be different next time. They’d stop turning off women. They’d tamp down on rogue outside groups. And they’d get the tea party movement in line.
But now that 2014 is here, those goals seem as elusive as ever and even insiders admit the party’s got a long way to go — if it really wants to change.
“I look at the long game on this,” said Kevin Madden, who was a top adviser to Mitt Romney. “You have to remind yourself that it is not an event, it’s a process and it’s not going to happen over night.”
The loudest example of how much the GOP is still stumbling on one of its top priorities came when former Gov. Mike Huckabee took the stage at the annual Republican National Committee winter meeting.
In just one reference to contraception, Huckabee reignited the “war on women” narrative that was so damaging to Republicans in the last election. “If the Democrats want to insult the women of America by making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or reproductive system without the help of the government, so be it.”
It’s the kind of line that might have revved up the conservatives who traveled from all over the country to attend the event in Washington, but made top Republicans cringe.
RNC Chairman Reince Priebus did not mention Huckabee by name, but alluded to him Friday saying that Republicans must improve their “tone.”
“I’ve said many times before that the policies and principles of our party are sound,” Priebus said. “However, as we look to grow the ranks of our party, we must all be very conscious of the tone and choice of words we use to communicate those policies effectively.”
But not all Republicans agree the party had a bad week. Speaker Newt Gingrich said the focus on women’s issues was a sideshow drummed up by liberal elites who like the controversy.
“The overwhelming weight of what the American people are experiencing is undermining Obama and therefore undermining the Democrats,” said Gingrich, who is now a host of CNN’s Crossfire. “You look at the weight of the economy and Obamacare. He drowns out almost everything else.”
And Huckabee has since defended his own comments, giving no ground to critics.
“Women (like men) are sexual beings, but they are much more than that,” Huckabee wrote in an email to Fox news. “To reduce either gender or any person to one aspect of their being is an unfair characterization. My point was to point out that Dems have put a laser like focus on government funded birth control and given it more attention than cancer drugs.”
House Republicans are also sticking to their agenda, rejecting the conventional wisdom pushed by many national GOP figures after the 2012 election that the party needed to rethink their rhetoric and their priorities.
Republicans announced plans to vote next week on a bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
The focus on so-called “women’s issues” follows Republicans disappointing loss in the Virginia governors race where conservative Ken Cuccinelli was attacked repeatedly during the campaign for his position’s on abortion.
But despite the latest flare up — several Republican campaign consultants said that the comments by one individual aren’t going to impact the party’s chances of 2014 or 2016.
“I see little to no relationship between what Gov. Huckabee said and whether the party is going to take on abortion,” said Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway. “All major polling indicates the president’s numbers are down all around town. That includes youth, Hispanics most predominately and even women, most of that is tied to the implementation of Obamacare.”
While Republicans across the board point to President Barack Obama’s health care law as the top reason they will win big in November, they continue to face pressure from third party groups.
News that Charles and David Koch were convening a gathering of like-minded allies in Palm Springs, Calif., to raise millions of dollars to play even more aggressively in primaries and the 2014 election and beyond comes despite efforts by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and others to blunt the perceived power of groups like Senate Conservatives Fund and Heritage Action.
And despite Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and the National Republican Senatorial Committee vowing to take on Republicans who challenge sitting lawmakers, FreedomWorks on Wednesday became the latest conservative group to throw its support behind McConnell primary challenger Matt Bevin. It was a direct blow to the establishment’s line.
Former NRSC senior aide Brian Walsh downplayed the conservative group’s power, noting how despite their aggressive campaigning against Sen. Orrin Hatch in 2012, the Utah Republican won reelection.
“I think Freedom Works right now is a paper tiger,” Walsh said.
Freedom Works had previously defended the move.
“It doesn’t make sense to go with McConnell,” President Matt Kibbe told POLITICO. “I think he’s very vulnerable to losing the seat. He just isn’t capable of driving policy anymore.”
Still, Republicans have started to show renewed interest in taking on some controversial issues like immigration reform. House Republicans have been working quietly behind the scenes to put together a plan for voting on a series of smaller issue-specific bills before the end of the year. While it’s unclear if they will be successful, Republican consultants say that showing a more openness to Latinos and policies that are important to them is a first step.
While the party’s profile with minority voters isn’t where it needs to be, there is an active movement to get better, according to Madden.
“Right now, is our profile with Hispanic voters where it needs to be — it’s not yet. With African American voters, it’s not,” Madden said. “Have there been efforts made to show up to at least engage these audiences, to listen better, to work through different elements on how best to craft the best policy messages… I think there have been those efforts.”