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How GOP Can Win Swing States in '14, White House in '16

How GOP Can Win Swing States in '14, White House in '16

By Frank Donatelli - October 25, 2014

The focus on the 2014 midterm elections has rightly been Senate control. As everyone knows, Republicans need a net gain of six seats to win a majority in the upper chamber and thereby force President Obama to actually participate in governing the country for the next two years. The House races are interesting mainly because Speaker John Boehner is seeking to add enough Republican seats to give him a real governing majority.

The betting here is that Boehner will get his wish and that the GOP will win the Senate, too. The deck is heavily stacked in Republicans’ favor. The six Senate seats Republicans are most likely to pick up are in states carried by Mitt Romney in 2012 and John McCain in 2008. The fact that all six had Democratic senators that voted for Obamacare in 2010 tells you how tenuous the Democratic Party super-majority was—and why opposition to the president’s agenda remains strong and enduring.

But the real significance of these midterms to the 2016 presidential campaign can be seen in Senate contests in the swing states of Colorado, Iowa, North Carolina, New Hampshire and Virginia. Four of the five went for Obama in the last two presidential elections (North Carolina backed him in 2008 but Mitt Romney edged the president in 2012) and at least three will have to switch for the next occupant of the White House to be a Republican.

What is the GOP doing to win these key battleground states this year and what could that mean for 2016?

1. Nominate strong candidates. There is not a weak GOP candidate in the swing states.  Four of them – Cory Gardner (Colorado), Joni Ernst (Iowa), Thom Tillis (North Carolina) and Scott Brown (New Hampshire) — are either current or former officeholders who have successfully faced the voters. Ed Gillespie in Virginia has run the Republican National Committee and was a key advisor to President George W. Bush. All five have records of accomplishment to cite when making their case to voters in these campaigns.

2. Frame the election in national terms. The Democratic senators in these same pivotal states are moving heaven and earth to separate themselves from Obama — despite the fact that all five voted for Obamacare, the economic stimulus, and virtually all of the president’s agenda. The GOP challengers have made Obama the central issue in their campaigns. In this effort they were aided by the president himself, who helpfully told liberal donors, “My policies are on the ballot.” The incumbent president’s standing will also have a powerful impact in 2016. There is no precedent for the party in power retaining the White House for a third term when the incumbent’s popularity is so low.

3. Promote an activist image. It is true that the GOP does not have a national alternative agenda, but that is almost always the case in off-year elections. The Republican candidates in these swing states are promoting a practical, problem-solving approach to governing. In a recent Wall Street Journal survey, an increasing numbers of voters say they are looking to support candidates who will work to find common solutions to problems the country faces. These candidates are younger (Brown is the oldest at 55), include two military veterans (Cotton and Ernst), and all promise to seek solutions to help make government functional again.

4. Appeal to women voters. The GOP is working overtime to appeal to female voters and neutralize Democratic charges of a Republican “war on women.” They’re making preemptive pledges of support for access to contraception, pay equity, and women’s health measures. Women voters are anxious over the precarious state of the economy and foreign threats that have made personal safety an increasing national concern.  Republican candidates are focused on emphasizing these concerns along with the many challenges that women face as they seek a better life and more opportunity for their children and families. Republicans are betting that an inclusive economic and safety appeal can broaden the ranks of GOP supporters by making headway with moderate and independent female voters. 

5. Stay positive. The country faces problems at all levels, but candidates who project an optimistic attitude usually prevail. Democrats are hunkered down, ignoring Obama and seeking to deflect attention from him. In the swing states, they are spending massive amounts of money running negative ads against their opponents. The GOP must answer the charges, but not be dissuaded from their determination to offer hopeful solutions in contrast to those who now run Washington.  

If this strategy works for Republicans in swing states this year, it can form the basis of a successful national effort. The party’s best hope to win back the White House in 2016 is an inclusive, activist campaign that focuses on broadening economic opportunity, enhancing personal safety and restoring a federal government that works for the benefit of individual Americans. The results in this year’s swing state contests will give us important clues as to the GOP’s chances.

Frank J. Donatelli, a veteran conservative activist, served as White House political director under Ronald Reagan and deputy chair of the RNC in 2008. He is currently chairman of GOPAC.

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