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Why Are Republicans Suddenly Leaning Left?

Why Are Republicans Suddenly Leaning Left?

By Bill Scher - September 8, 2014

Several Republican candidates in the year's most competitive Senate races have begun their fall sprint to Election Day, not by embracing Tea Party-fueled conservatism but by defensively tacking leftward.

Let’s start in Colorado, site of a strategic GOP retreat in the “War on Women.” The Republican backtracking there is being done by Rep. Cory Gardner, following withering attacks by Democrats on his past support for “personhood amendments” that bestow rights to fertilized human eggs and effectively ban some forms of birth control. Gardner released an ad claiming he would make access to “the pill … cheaper and easier” than would his opponent, Sen. Mark Udall, by ending the need for prescriptions.  This tactic quickly spread. In his first debate with Sen. Kay Hagan, North Carolina Republican nominee Thom Tillis embraced the same plan.

In Arkansas, meanwhile, Republican Rep. Tom Cotton is wilting under Democratic pressure on the minimum wage. Cotton is challenging Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor. Like nearly all GOP politicians, but not like most voters, Cotton is opposed to raising the federal minimum from its current level of $7.25. But on Election Day, Arkansans will vote on a ballot initiative to raise the state minimum to $8.50, squeezing Cotton to the breaking point. Put on the spot in a radio interview Friday, he said he would vote for the state measure, though he avoided answering a follow-up question about whether that means he would support raising the federal minimum to the same level.

Alaska Republican Dan Sullivan this week aired a new ad that practically makes him seem like a Democrat: embracing teachers and excoriating Wall Street. A seventh-grade Anchorage teacher tells the story of how Sullivan, as state attorney general, helped shore up the public fund that managed her pension and “forc[ed] a Wall Street firm to pay for their malpractice, returning almost half a billion dollars into the retirement fund for Alaskans.” No complaints about government shakedowns. No teacher-bashing. And also of note: no mention of the word “Republican.”

Another notable ad last week similarly shied away from the GOP label: a U.S. Chamber of Commerce spot supporting Scott Brown’s New Hampshire Senate run, featuring Mitt Romney. Somewhat discordantly, the 2012 Republican Party standard-bearer assures the Granite State voters who twice picked Barack Obama for president that Brown “will buck his own party to do what’s right for New Hampshire.” Not even Romney can bring himself to say “Republican” in the ad.

Why are these candidates blurring partisan and ideological lines in the homestretch? Granted, it’s hardly unprecedented for candidates to follow the wisdom of Richard Nixon, who once told presidential candidate Bob Dole that to win the Republican nomination “you have to run as far as you can to the right” but in the general election “you have to run as fast as you can back to the middle, because only about 4 percent of the nation's voters are on the extreme right wing."

But that was more than 20 years ago. This year was supposed to be different. Obama’s numbers are at their lowest ebb, threatening to drag down Democrats across the country. In July, Rep. Greg Walden, the Republican in charge of the House midterm campaigns, was predicting a “wave” election because of those numbers.

Furthermore, we are supposedly in the age of the “disappearing undecided voter,” as Politico put it in 2012. “Internal and public polls consistently show far fewer undecided voters than four years ago, the result in part of a polarized electorate that has had four years to get to know Obama,” Politico reported at the time. Based on that logic, the presidential campaigns worked harder at turning out partisans than wooing the tiny remaining sliver of swing voters, who, as Nate Cohn explained at The New Republic, are historically “unlikely to break overwhelmingly toward one candidate” anyway.

Considering that there are fewer genuine swing voters in the voter pool, if we were really in the midst of a Republican wave, conservative candidates wouldn’t need to lean left to win. Yet several candidates running in the most hotly contested races are doing just that.

These hardheaded Republican candidates are wisely eschewing the assumption that Greg Walden embraced, which was presuming Obama’s that low poll numbers are proof that a rightward shifting electorate is eager to vote in more Republicans.

The problem with that analysis is it ignores the Republican Party’s own poll numbers, which are demonstrably worse than Obama’s and those of the Democratic Party. GOP favorability is generally in the mid-30s. In the most recent CBS poll, Republicans scraped bottom at 29 percent, while Democrats earned a relatively healthier 41 percent.

Republican insiders are aware of the hurdles they’ve created for themselves. As Politico reported last week, “Nearly a year after the government shutdown, Republicans privately say the party’s tattered public image is dragging down candidates in key races.” Two years of heavy obstruction, minimal cooperation, and little idea generation has cemented the public impression of Republicans as unserious about governing, and unreformed, despite the economic debacle that capped the George W. Bush presidency.

None of this means Republicans can’t have a good Election Day. The Senate 2014 map is tinted red, with several incumbent Senate Democrats up for re-election in states Romney won two years ago. But without a real lurch to the right among the electorate, the map can only work in the GOP’s favor if some political lines are blurred.

Credit these Republicans’ political skills for recognizing the need to resist ideological rigidity, and avoiding the pitfalls of 2012 goats Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock. Though if it’s their dexterity that makes the difference in November, they will have think hard about how they should govern starting in January.

Bill Scher is executive editor of LiberalOasis and a contributor to RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at contact@liberaloasis.com or follow him on Twitter @BillScher.

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