GOP makes play for the center

Greg Nash

With primary season over, the GOP is beginning to inch back to the center. 

Republican Senate and House candidates have begun to loudly embrace more moderate policies such as an increase in the minimum wage and over-the-counter birth control in an effort to win over swing voters and soften their image.

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GOP strategists say the battle between now and Election Day to decide control of the Senate and the size of Republicans’ House majority will focus on that sliver of voters in the middle.

“We’re starting to hear more about [these issues] than before because the voters who are at the ideological ends of the spectrum are already accounted for this election. So the moderate middle, generally, are the voters that are up for grabs,” said Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster who’s done work this cycle on appealing to female and swing voters.

In Kentucky, Sen. Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellOvernight Finance: McConnell tees up Puerto Rico vote | Britain's credit rating slashed | Clinton vows to appoint trade prosecutor Senate Dem blocks intelligence authorization over FBI surveillance Overnight Healthcare: Biggest abortion rights win in 25 years | Justice Kennedy again steps to the left MORE (R-Ky.) recently said he could support an increase in the minimum wage if the economy were stronger, while Rep. Tom CottonTom CottonCoors, ex-NFL coach to fundraise for Trump GOP senators: Brexit vote a wake-up call Sessions warns of 'radical' Clinton immigration policy MORE (R-Ark.) said last week he would vote for the state’s minimum wage ballot measure. 

Republican Senate candidates in Colorado, Minnesota, Virginia and Louisiana have all embraced the idea of offering some forms of birth control over the counter, as has House GOP challenger Carl DeMaio in California. Rep. Cory GardnerCory GardnerColorado GOP Senate race to unseat Dem incumbent is wide open Overnight Defense: Senate rejects new FBI surveillance powers | Brexit vote looms | Push for new military aid deal with Israel Senators push vote to condemn Russia's 'reckless actions' MORE (R-Colo.), locked in a tight battle with Sen. Mark UdallMark UdallColorado GOP Senate race to unseat Dem incumbent is wide open Energy issues roil race for Senate Unable to ban Internet gambling, lawmakers try for moratorium MORE (D-Colo.), is making it a centerpiece of his Senate campaign and just ran an ad highlighting his position. 

Some Senate candidates have made issues and proposals most commonly associated with Democrats a prominent part of their campaign messages. 

Iowa Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst has said she’d work with Democratic Sens. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandDems celebrate anniversary of gay marriage ruling Sanders shares star power with NY House hopeful Bernie Sanders’s awkward return to the Senate MORE (N.Y.) and Claire McCaskillClaire McCaskillOvernight Tech: Obama heads back to Silicon Valley | FCC meeting preview | Yahoo bans terror content | Zuckerberg on sit-in live streams Senator shares frustrating call with cable company Hate TV customer service? So does your senator MORE (Mo.) to tackle sexual assault in the military after the female combat veteran shared her own story of sexual harassment while on duty. 

North Carolina Republican Senate candidate Thom Tillis and Alaska Republican Senate candidate Dan Sullivan have both touted their support for teachers in recent ads.

The messaging shift is taking place at the House level as well, with some Republican House candidates and incumbents, including vulnerable Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.), touting support for the Violence Against Women Act.

Most of the issues Republicans are highlighting are widely popular with swing voters. And it’s no coincidence that many of the more centrist policies Republicans are embracing are geared toward women, a longtime Achilles’ heel for the GOP. 

Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway said the effort to refocus on these issues is likely to appeal not just to female voters but to disaffected Obama voters up for grabs this season.

“Entering the sixth year of the Obama economy, women are looking around for an alternative,” she said. 

Conway noted, too, that “this is probably very attractive to a number of constituencies that supported President Obama, and now disapprove of his job performance.”

Brock McCleary, a former strategist for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said that the fight over the base is done, and the only voters left to woo are the non-ideological voters in the middle.

“Success means winning whatever slice of the electorate is left — and what really remains now is kind of a sliver of the electorate that is more independent and less ideological,” said McCleary. 

But the tactic is not without risk for Republicans.

Democrats have hammered Gardner as a flip-flopper on women’s issues, going so far as to label him a “liar” for coming out opposed to “personhood” measures after sponsoring a federal personhood bill. Democrats have attacked Southerland along those same lines for his proclaimed support of the Violence Against Women Act.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Justin Barasky called the messaging shift “nothing more than political gimmicks” and said “their records are pretty clear and pretty long” on these issues.

“This is a sign of just how vulnerable Republican Senate candidates are when voters take a close look at their anti-middle-class records that would gut Medicare and Social Security, restrict women’s access to birth control, and are in line with special interest billionaires like the Koch brothers instead of their states,” he said, referring to conservative super-donors Charles and David Koch.

McCleary counseled Republicans to frame their positions as evidence that he or she is “a thoughtful legislator” who can evolve on an issue when new information is presented — which is how Gardner has pushed back on Democratic charges he’s shown hypocrisy in coming out opposed to “personhood” measures, despite sponsoring such legislation at the federal level.

“One man’s hypocrite is another man’s thoughtful legislator, someone who looks at an issue and whose position is not set in stone for perpetuity,” he said.

Newhouse, who polled for 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney, noted that whether Republicans can successfully shift on these issues “is a matter of how believable [they are] when they say this stuff.”

While Republicans see an opening to discuss these issues as party contests wrap up, Newhouse warned candidates must still walk a fine line in appealing to both the center and the base.

“The candidates need to energize his or her base while at the same time convincing or wooing those voters in the middle,” he said. “It’s a delicate balance between talking about issues that you know will excite your base, and at the same time issues that will convince the moderate voters to support you.”

Cotton’s comments on the state’s ballot measure on minimum wage underscored this challenge. He remains opposed to a federal minimum wage increase, and wouldn’t say whether he supports the ballot measure’s goal of an $8.50 minimum wage.

Republicans insist their candidates haven’t shifted, and are simply coming out loudly in favor of common-sense solutions at a time when voters are hungering for a credible alternative to President Obama.

“Every woman can understand the convenience of making contraception available OTC. It’s a visceral, real-world example of a making life more convenient and less complicated than need be,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee spokeswoman Brook Hougesen. “In short, it boils down to the fact that Democrats’ answer to the problems women face is more bureaucrats, whereas Republicans want you and you alone in charge of your life.”