Will 2014 GOP success equal 2016 victory?

Getty Images

A year after trying to make sense of their 2012 losses, the GOP is gearing up for big 2014 wins.  

Senate control looks within their grasp, and Republicans aren’t in any danger of losing the House, but their optimism could be shortsighted. Strategists say the GOP still hasn't done enough to expand and grow their party to win the White House in two years. 

"I'm concerned we're going to make a lot of gains in 2014, and people are going to confuse that with success at the national level and learn the wrong lessons. It's two different electorates," said GOP consultant Ford O'Connell.

Republicans have the wind at their backs heading into the fall. A poor national climate for Democrats, driven by President Obama's sagging approval ratings, an older, whiter midterm electorate and a favorable Senate map all give them big advantages.  

But in 2016, none of that will be true. In a presidential year, where they need to appeal to Hispanics, women and young voters, the GOP's response to its  "autopsy" a year ago has fallen short in many places. Immigration reform is all but dead, and the party is still grappling with off-message remarks from some candidates. 

All those fault lines were addressed in the Republican National Committee's "Growth and Opportunity Project,” which celebrates its one-year mark Tuesday. The lengthy internal critique of what had gone wrong for the party in 2012 and how they needed to change in order to be able to win over an increasingly diverse electorate stressed those concerns and more. 

Republicans credit RNC Chairman Reince Priebus and his staff for making great strides on data, technology and get-out-the-vote operations, the things they have the most control over. They crow about last week’s Florida special-election win in a district President Obama carried twice. But some worry that, on the report’s other recommendations, the party has failed to follow the RNC’s lead.

The GOP is making a major push on the report’s anniversary with ads featuring female and minority voters explaining why they’re Republicans. Priebus is making the rounds on television, and its authors held a Monday conference call and released an op-ed to tout the party’s progress. 

“I think we are making positive strides,” said South Carolina Republican National Committeeman Glenn McCall, one of the report’s co-authors.

But the party remains deeply divided on an array of issues. House Republicans have bottlenecked on immigration reform and appear unlikely to pass a wide-ranging bill anytime soon. GOP backlash against the bill sent its champion, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), from a lead in early 2016 polls to the low single digits. 

The report’s authors hinted at some frustration on immigration, though they wouldn’t directly criticize House Republicans.

“We're doing the work we feel we have control over and can move forward, and that is engaging the Hispanic community and not only the Hispanic community but all ethnic communities,” McCall said. “As it relates to how things happen on the Hill, that's out of our purview.”

Republicans believe they’ve improved some in discussing the hot-button social issues Democrats have used to fuel their “war on women” narrative and drive younger voters and suburban women to their side. Even at the Conservative Political Action Conference, famous for its fiery rhetoric, gay marriage was barely mentioned earlier this month. 

But on issues like contraception and abortion, some Republicans have continued to stir the pot. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s comment that Democrats support insurance covering contraception because they think women “cannot control their libido” at the RNC’s winter meeting in January drew negative headlines and led to a rebuke from Priebus.

The party also continues to be blindsided by controversial comments and actions — Republicans privately say they were caught off-guard when GOP Arizona lawmakers passed a bill allowing business owners to deny gay customers service. GOP Gov. Jan Brewer eventually vetoed the measure.

Democrats have been more than happy to point out the GOP’s shortcomings. 

"It's a year later, and the only difference is the RNC is a year older. Whether you're talking about 2014 fundamentals or the party as a whole, you're seeing people day in and day out saying things that are offensive, divisive and alienate the very voters they said last year they need to do better with, women, people of color and young people," said Democratic National Committee spokesman Michael Czin.

Those hurdles might not slow down Republicans much in 2014. Midterm elections tend to be much older and less diverse — white voters were 77 percent of the electorate in 2010, but were just 74 percent in 2008 and 72 percent in 2012. 

The Senate battlefield sets on mostly GOP-leaning or purple states — Republicans could win the six seats they need for majority control without winning a single state President Obama carried in 2012. And in heavily gerrymandered House districts, the few swing seats tend to be whiter than the nation as a whole. 

Even Priebus acknowledges the GOP is much better positioned in off-year elections. 

"We've become a party that has a hard time losing midterms but a hard time winning presidentials," he told reporters at CPAC earlier this month.

Republicans are optimistic about the direction the party is moving but admit progress has been slow. And with a highly unsettled 2016 field of their own, while Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton leads nearly every Republican in early polls, they have to move into a treatment plan and not get false hope from likely 2014 gains. 

“The best news is that Republicans are out of the denial phase. We know we have a problem, and finally, we're doing something about it,” said Mark McKinnon, a senior adviser to former President George W. Bush. “Overall, Republicans have learned some hard lessons and look to be generally smarter and more reasonable, including fielding better candidates. It may be incremental, but I get the sense it's heading in the right direction.”