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A.B. Stoddard: Growing the GOP

The GOP’s trip to the wilderness, after the crushing defeat of Republican nominee Mitt Romney in the last presidential election, doesn’t look like it will end before the next presidential election, and possibly the one after that. How else to explain that prominent Republicans are openly questioning the party’s ability to win the White House in 2016 nearly two and half years before the vote?

Sure, Republicans are poised to win big this fall in the midterm elections, thanks to an unpopular incumbent president, redistricting that protects their hold on the House of Representatives, and an energized off-year electorate, but after that, it’s not looking so good. 

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Just days ago Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol suggested a 2014 victory would not help the party win a general election in 2016 and that “Republicans seem likely to win in 2014 and to lose in 2016.” Pete Wehner, a veteran of the Reagan administration and both Bush administrations, agreed with him. Kristol wrote that the party lacks a bold conservative agenda and the candidates to embrace one. Wehner sees another, worse problem: it’s a numbers game, and so far the numbers look bad.

The demographic liability for Republicans, Wehner notes, worsens each year — even each month, as 55,000 Latino citizens reach voting age. It isn’t just that Romney won with 88 percent support from whites but then lost Latinos, women, Asians, African-Americans and young voters. It’s that those groups within the population are growing, while the white vote has declined from 87 percent in 1992 to 72 percent in 2012. 

Republicans often hold out hope in presidential years that if they just turn on those turned off white voters staying home from the polls they can close the gap, but it is long past time to start finding some new voters instead.

Finding them in the next two years will be challenging, and if the party doesn’t shift on same-sex marriage or immigration reform that includes legalization, it is likely impossible. 

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush floated his controversy balloon two weeks ago; it was summarily shot down by conservatives who equated his comments about some people coming to the U.S. illegally as an “an act of love” with support for amnesty that rewards lawbreakers. Speaker John Boehner, 2012 vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, Karl Rove and many key GOP donors agree with Bush, but saying that out loud is still enough to start a firestorm in today’s Republican Party. Republicans like Boehner are clearly torn — he told donors last week he is “hellbent on getting this done this year,” according to The Wall Street Journal — but knowledgeable House Republicans working the issue say no matter what Boehner tells pro-reform supporters, moving on the issue this year remains impossible.

The other new and burgeoning divide in the GOP is over same-sex marriage, which now enjoys majority support in polling, except among Republicans. The quiet conversations have turned public as Republican state parties in Nevada, Illinois and other states move to drop opposition to marriage equality and new donors are pushing the issue with candidates. Though none of the numerous potential presidential candidates have even hinted at shifting their position on marriage — which would seriously hobble them in the more conservative primary process — a growing number of Republicans believe the party must take the issue off the table in order to win over the next generation of voters on economic policy.

“There has been a rapid evolution among Republicans over the issue of gay marriage. More and more our voters are taking a more libertarian view; that this is a personal, private issue. But it is not the social issues that drive the GOP agenda, but the economic; taxes, deficits and Obamacare,” noted GOP fundraiser Fred Malek.

Neither same-sex marriage nor immigration reform are likely to help Democrats in the election this November, when their voters traditionally stay home. But those issues will galvanize Democrats in 2016, and unless the Republican candidates for president have a rapid evolution on at least one or both of them, their numbers in 2016 could come up short once again.

 

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.