Looking Back On A Roller Coaster Year For The GOP

It's been a long year since Republicans vowed to rebrand their party as friendlier to women, minorities and younger voters. Even if its longer term problems remain, the party finds itself in surprisingly good shape going into the 2014 midterms.

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This was a rollercoaster of a year for the Republican Party. It began with the Republicans licking their wounds from the big defeat in 2012, then vowing to rebrand themselves in order to appeal to a changing electorate. The party also took a big hit in public approval polls during the government shutdown. But even its longer-term problems remain, the GOP finds itself in surprisingly good shape going into the 2014 midterms. Here's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson with more.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Back in March, the Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus commissioned a brutally candid autopsy on the 2012 campaign. The report said voters saw the Republican Party as a group of stuffy old white men, badly in need of a way to reach out to younger voters, women and minorities.

REINCE PRIEBUS: By the year 2050, we'll be a majority-minority country. And in both 2008 and 2012, President Obama won a combined 80 percent of the votes of all minority groups.

LIASSON: For a moment, it seemed a new day might dawn for the GOP, but fast-forward to December, and you're still hearing complaints about Republicans coming from other Republicans. Here's Wisconsin Republican Congressman Sean Duffy on MSNBC.

(SOUNDBITE OF MSNBC BROADCAST)

REP. SEAN DUFFY: You have people that have - on our side of the aisle that have a really abrasive tone. We can come across as knuckle-dragging Neanderthals on occasion. I'm a fiscal and social conservative, but we have to actually take our message to where people are at. We have moms that can't pay the utility bill, dads who can't pay the mortgage. How does our conservative ideology and philosophy actually help lift them out of the place they're in today and move them up the economic ladder? We don't do a good job of presenting that message, and we have to change how we're doing it.

LIASSON: Republicans say they want to reach out to Hispanics, women, young people and the middle class, but the one legislative effort to do that this year - a comprehensive immigration overhaul - has stalled in the Republican-led House. Pete Wehner, a former aide in the Bush White House, says it's all too easy for some Republicans to put the outreach effort on hold when it's become so politically fruitful to simply oppose the Democrats.

PETE WEHNER: The Obama presidency is in real danger and is badly damaged. So, the temptation of Republicans is simply to sit on the sideline and watch it and not offer any alternatives. I think you can do that for a while, but at the end of the day, Republicans have to offer a governing vision.

LIASSON: A governing vision, which would include ideas about jobs, economic mobility and even health care is needed, says veteran operative Ed Rogers. But Republicans still have plenty of time.

ED ROGERS: The Republican Party hasn't done much in the way of affirmative good. It's riding on the wave of all the bad that Obama and the Democrats are doing. You know, but that said, that doesn't really distress me all that much. You know, I wish Republicans would do things that would be more common-sensically more appealing to Hispanics. I wish that we would get ready for the day when we would be able to appeal to a black middle class. A lot's got to happen, but I wouldn't trade places with the Democrats right now.

LIASSON: One thing that's got to happen is a resolution to the simmering feud inside the Republican Party. It burst into the open recently when Speaker Boehner broke with what could be called the no-compromise caucus, the constellation of Tea Party champions and deep-pocketed activists that pushed for the government shutdown.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER: Frankly, I think they're misleading their followers. I think they're pushing our members in places where they don't want to be. And frankly, I just think that they've lost all credibility.

LIASSON: This fall's government shutdown fight was a disaster in the eyes of the establishment wing of the party. In October, in the Wall Street Journal poll, the Republicans became the first political party to get a negative rating higher than 50 percent. Brian Walsh is a Republican strategist formerly with the Republican Senate Campaign Committee.

BRIAN WALSH: I think it's very important that Speaker Boehner finally drew a line in the sand and said enough is enough, and called these groups out. And this process is going to play itself out in a number of Senate primaries next year, which I also think will be very critical to the long term outcome of this debate.

LIASSON: For conservative activists, like Erick Erickson, those primaries will be another chance for the Tea Party grassroots to send a message to the Washington wing of the party.

ERICK ERICKSON: Most conservatives that I talk to just feel like the Republicans, they don't want to fight. They're hoping that the Democrats lose the election instead of trying to win the election. I think they're much more alienated now, now that the veneer has come off with the speaker. He's no longer willing to even keep up the pretense. The Republicans are going to head into 2014 with a very vicious, savage and bloody primary season in a way we did not see in 2010, or even 2012.

LIASSON: Those primaries might help resolve the deep division in the GOP, which Erickson sees as a fundamental split.

ERICKSON: And it is largely a Republican Party that is very Washington-centric, and a Republican base that is very anti-Washington. You have a lot of individuals within the Republican Party leadership who believe that the problem with government is not government, it's Democrats in charge of government, while the base still thinks the problem with government is government.

LIASSON: But despite such divisions, the Republican Party - from the grassroots to K Street - is remarkably upbeat about its prospects. Former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer - who was one of the three authors of the RNC autopsy report - says that's true, even though so much about the GOP rebrand is still a work in progress.

ARI FLEISCHER: Right now, the party remains pretty split. How that split ends up - does the party unify? I think it will. But who will it unify behind? This all is what remains to be seen for the big rebranding of the party. I find it amazing that the party - in comparison to the Democrats - is doing as well as it is doing without any rebranding taking place. It shows you how weak the Democrats are, how much trouble Obamacare has created.

LIASSON: That may hold true - at least for upcoming midterm elections, which usually bring out a more Republican-friendly set of voters. But after that, Fleischer warns, the next presidential cycle will bring back all the demographic challenges the GOP still has not met.

FLEISCHER: 2016 will be a test of a lot of the weaknesses that were exposed in 2012. And before you get to 2015-16 cycle, you have to get through the 2014 cycle, which likely is going to be a very successful cycle for Republicans, even without improving the brand, particularly. The worst thing Republicans can do is win a lot of seats in 2014 and think that the same electorate will show up in 2016, because it won't. The voters in 2016 are going to be much younger, much blacker, and much more Hispanic. It is a very different electorate than a much older, whiter electorate that is going to show up in 2014.

LIASSON: So, even if the party is celebrating midterm victories about a year from now, it will have to turn its attention again to the unfinished business of rebranding itself for an emerging electorate. And it will have that much less time left to do it. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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