The Republican Party's Remarkable Non-Transformation
Sometime after the polls close Tuesday night, we'll find out if Republicans managed a spectacular feat.
The party that lost the last two presidential elections is seeking a comeback, adding control of the Senate to control of the House. Republicans aim to dominate Congress with a fresh presidential election looming in 2016. It would be, in one of the hackneyed phrases of journalism, "a remarkable transformation."
It's better described as a "non-transformation." The GOP has waged this campaign without altering a single one of the major political positions that supposedly doom the party to demographic oblivion.
Opposition to immigration reform was supposed to permanently lose the growing Latino vote. Opposition to abortion rights and gay marriage was supposed to permanently lose the millennial generation. Knee-jerk opposition to President Obama was supposed to turn off moderate and minority voters. Even opposition to Obamacare was expected to be a millstone for the GOP, once its benefits became apparent.
The party has not really changed course. Republicans who tried have been chastened. So how has the GOP arrived at Election Day with an excellent chance to capture the Senate?
Partly it's that the GOP benefits from quirks of the election system. Many Senate seats up for grabs this year are in conservative states. Here's how political analyst Amy Walter summarized the GOP approach: "We're going to win [the Senate] in red states ... and we don't have to make some of these changes ... like expanding the party to include minority voters, reaching out to younger voters."
Something more is happening, too. Without really altering their positions, Republicans updated the way they talk about hot-button issues. They seek to minimize their weaknesses before a changing electorate. That has left Democrats struggling to highlight Republican vulnerabilities.
Doorstopping the Front Range
Wanting to hear how individual voters are responding to Democratic and Republican appeals, we knocked on doors in Colorado.
The Senate race there is very close. Democratic Sen. Mark Udall faces a challenge from Republican Cory Gardner, currently a member of the House.
Colorado, once a red state, has turned purple. We saw one reason why in Platteville, tiny farm town, population 2,568. Like so much of the state, this rural outpost has a growing Latino population. Local resident Lucy Montoya told us that at the Spanish-style Catholic church, "We have had such an influx of the Hispanic population that we went from having one English mass to then having a bilingual mass, and now we have one mass in English and one mass in Spanish every week."
The area's Latino community includes Mexican restaurant owner Jose Lozano, an immigrant from Mexico, now a U.S. citizen at age 38. Asked how he votes, he said simply, "I'm a Democrat," and added that he's concerned about the Republican candidate's past opposition to immigration reform.
Surely Colorado is also a swing state because of voters like Wayne Pulick. We met him when we knocked on a door in Lakewood, Colo. and discovered a dinner party inside. Five friends were sipping wine and enjoying takeout from Alameda Burrito, a local place that they highly recommended even though it is attached to a gas station.
The dinner companions were mostly Democrats, but not Pulick. "I'm a registered Republican," he told us. "I used to vote on the basis of who was the best for the job. But then two terms of [President George W.] Bush convinced me to be more extreme." Like everyone at the table, he's a vote for the Democrat, Mark Udall, this year.
In recent years, the GOP did indeed seem too far right for Colorado. In 2010, Democrat Michael Bennet won a Colorado Senate race, painting the GOP nominee as far too conservative, especially on women's reproductive rights.
One national Republican official told me his party lost Colorado in 2010 even though "we had a gorilla on the scale" — a national wave of unrest over the Great Recession. In 2014 the nation is less discontented, but the Republicans still have "a thumb on the scale," and they don't want to blow it again.
This time the GOP nominee is Cory Gardner, a conservative member of the raucous House of Representatives, who has made every effort not to seem excessively conservative or raucous.
Early in the campaign, Gardner supported over-the-counter contraceptives, a way of advertising that he wasn't opposed to birth control. He also disavowed his past support for a proposed "personhood" amendment to Colorado's constitution, which would require an embryo to be defined as a human being under the state criminal code, with potential consequences for abortion, in vitro fertilization, and some forms of birth control. Though Gardner has supported such measures at both the state and federal levels, he publicly turned against such a measure on Colorado's 2014 ballot.
One voter we met was exceedingly doubtful of the sincerity of Gardner's reversal. If he supported a personhood amendment in the past, said Taylor Dybdahl, of Lakewood, "he might do it in the future. He's saying that he's not supporting it now just to get elected." She's 21, a college student, and a single woman — the kind of voter Democrats depend on.
But Gardner's shift has clouded the issue. When Democrats attacked him on women's rights — following a formula that worked in 2010 — they provoked a backlash. The Denver Post accused Udall of "seeking to frighten voters" and endorsed Gardner. Most voters we interviewed, if they were following the campaign at all, were left with an impression of an ugly and negative contest.
The Republican operative contended Gardner is running a strong race simply because he "hasn't said anything stupid." Numerous past GOP candidates have been sunk by sharp-edged remarks that prompted voters to focus on their views on social issues. Gardner hasn't.
The Republican operative described Gardner as setting an example. When other Senate candidates — Joni Ernst of Iowa or Tom Cotton of Arkansas — have been questioned on hot-button issues, "we send them Gardner's stuff."
Other Republican candidates are also minimizing their vulnerabilities. In Kentucky, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell remains formally opposed to Obamacare — but knowing that Kentucky's health care exchange has met with much success, he publicly declared the state exchange "fine."
In New Hampshire, a Republican House candidate, Marilinda Garcia, typifies the GOP approach to another hot-button issue, gay marriage. "Some issues," she told us in September, aren't "the battle anymore. So I think that with time, we'll just see a whole different set of issues."
In other words, courts are rapidly deciding the issue in favor of gay marriage, allowing Republicans to remain silent.
Republicans' low profile may be working. In Colorado, gay marriage was legalized just a few weeks ago. Yet when we asked voters about their major issues or concerns, not a single one brought up the subject.
Decided Republicans, Uncertain Democrats
By minimizing their vulnerabilities, Republicans have complicated Democratic efforts to fire up their core voters.
Democratic voters instead are thinking of President Obama, whose popularity has sagged. Samy Wahabrebi, a Sudanese immigrant and U.S. citizen we met in the Denver suburb of Aurora, told us he voted for the president in 2008, but has been disappointed since. "I was expecting more," he said.
In our Colorado interviews, Republicans expressed fewer doubts. In Lakewood, Sue Berg, 82, let us into her living room, where she tended to a miniature greyhound while watching Fox News. As we walked in, television host Bill O'Reilly was denouncing Harry Reid, the Senate Democratic leader.
A moment later, as we began our interview, Berg declared: "I think they should get rid of Reid."
Does this mean Republicans will win the Senate?
Not necessarily. Democrats retain a powerful get-out-the-vote operation, which gives them hope.
But if Republicans do prevail without really changing their positions, there may be consequences.
Some Republicans with an eye on the presidential race in 2016 have been eager to reorient their party. They want to significantly change GOP positions on issues like immigration. The party's failure to keep up with trends in public opinion will be harder to minimize in the brighter light and larger electorate of a presidential year.
They could try for change after Tuesday's election.
But that will be hard: Most Republicans in Congress will have been elected without really calling for a new course.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In the last days of the campaign, MORNING EDITION's Steve Inskeep went knocking on doors in Colorado. He listened to voters in a state with a vital Senate race. We've heard some of the voters he met in recent days. On this election morning, let's meet one more. She's exactly the type of voter both parties have spent millions courting.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We found her in Lakewood, Colorado. We knocked on every door in this quiet block. Pink flamingos decorated some of the modest brick homes. You could stand in the middle of the street for quite some time without being troubled by a car. But the neighborhood is busier than it looks. We found out about that when Taylor Dybdahl answered our knock and opened the door to a story.
INSKEEP: Hi. We're reporters from NPR - National Public Radio...
TAYLOR DYBDAHL: Mmm-hmm.
INSKEEP: ...And we're here covering the election...
INSKEEP: ...Which, I imagine, you've heard a little bit about.
DYBDAHL: Just a little.
INSKEEP: Of course she has. The street is in Jefferson County in the Denver suburbs, considered the epicenter of the campaign. Both parties are doing everything they can to bring out the vote.
Did you know Bill Clinton was in town today?
DYBDAHL: I know, and I missed him 'cause of course I had to be at school.
INSKEEP: Taylor Dybdahl had her hair in a ponytail and wore glasses with violet frames. She's a junior at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
Are you paying your way through - student loans, something else?
DYBDAHL: Love it.
INSKEEP: The high cost of education is one of the reasons she is really into politics. She picked a campus close enough that she could live here with her mom and save money. And she is a key voter for Colorado Democrats. They won past elections here by relentlessly focusing on women's reproductive rights. This year, Democratic Senator Mark Udall is focused on them again. And as we chatted by the bench on this concrete porch, our producer, Molly Messick, had a question.
MOLLY MESSICK: Single women have been the target vote, especially in Jefferson County. Have you been inundated? Have you had lots of people calling you, sending you mailers?
DYBDAHL: Especially in the mail, we get a lot of flyers. And they go directly to my recycling bin because I'm like, this is ridiculous, stop sending me stuff. But I've had a lot of people come to the door, especially in Jefferson County - Britney Patterson, who's running for state representative, and I'm like, oh, my God, it's Britney Patterson. And, so, yeah, but I get a ton of people coming. And they're like, can we pledge your vote for Udall, can we do this? And I'm like, can I get back to my homework?
INSKEEP: Not that she's uninterested. A so-called Personhood Amendment is on Colorado's ballot this year. Taylor Dybdahl associates that ballot measure, mistakenly, with the Republican nominee for Senate.
DYBDAHL: Amendment 67, which is the Personhood Bill - Cory Gardner is sponsoring that to try to get, like, major forms of birth control illegal and then having all abortions be illegal.
INSKEEP: It's a matter of debate whether that would be the effect of Amendment 67. Social conservatives have pressed for the measure. It would define unborn children as human beings, protected by the state criminal code. Republican Cory Gardner actually has favored such measures at the state and federal levels. But this year, he says, Amendment 67 is a mistake. Republicans have been working to change perceptions about their party. They want to blunt the force of Democratic appeals to women.
If Gardner was here, I think he'd say this; I used to support a Personhood Amendment, but this time around I'm not supporting it. Does that make you any more sympathetic to him?
DYBDAHL: Not really. If he's done it in the past, but he's saying he's not going to do it now, he might do it in the future. He's saying that he's not supporting it now just to get elected.
INSKEEP: So it sounds like Taylor Dybdahl is a sure Democratic vote. But there's something else you need to know about her - she is studying political science.
DYBDAHL: Everyone's like, what do you want to do with that? And I'm like, long-term goal, U.N. ambassador would be pretty cool.
INSKEEP: And she really wants to think about the issues, in all their complexity. When we met a week ago, she had yet to return the ballot that she, like every registered voter in Colorado, received in the mail. Listen to what happened when we asked about it. Even as she talked, her position seemed to evolve.
So I'm wondering if you have a view of the Senate race, then.
DYBDAHL: Yes. I'm pro-Udall. I love Udall. I understand why people might lean towards Gardner 'cause I am kind of - I like to see myself as an undecided voter. Like, I'm a registered Democrat, but I still don't really know. I like to be registered so I can vote in the primaries. And so I understand why they would want to go for Gardner because Udall - his whole family is politicians. So, like, it's nice to get new blood in there, but I think Cory is just too extreme.
INSKEEP: Extreme, she thinks. But she has friends in rural areas. And they've been telling her Gardner has done good things there. At the time of our interview, a few days ago, she was still thinking.
DYBDAHL: It's a week away, and I'm, like, up in the air still, so...
INSKEEP: Are you serious?
DYBDAHL: I know...
INSKEEP: Because you were so passionate in the beginning about women's - I just assumed - but you could change your mind.
DYBDAHL: Yeah, because it's not just one thing. So if they were running on just women's rights, I would vote Udall. But there's so many other things going on, and there's never just one issue that Senate is tackling at a time.
INSKEEP: For millions of people across the United States, this fall's decision is already made. They mailed in ballots or took advantage of polling places that opened early. The last voters make their choices today.
MONTAGNE: And that's our colleague Steve Inskeep. You can find all our Colorado voter interviews at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.