Every fall the U.S. Chamber of Commerce hosts small and mid-market business leaders at its headquarters in Washington, D.C. This year the conference had a markedly different vibe – it was hopeful.
Members of the Republican establishment, who only just began publicly identifying themselves, still wince when they think about Novembers in recent even years. Amy Walter, the national editor of Cook Political Report and the Chamber’s keynote speaker, admitted that Republicans grabbed defeat from the jaws of victory during the 2010 and 2012 election cycles. Her boss, Charlie Cook, attributes the party’s unnecessary losses to “exotic” candidates a la Todd Akin and Christine O’Donnell who made sure the GOP floundered through general elections that party moderates could have and should have won.
The establishment, tired of being on the other side of demagoguery, put its foot down this year. Vocal and financial backing of good would-be general election candidates in oft-treacherous Republican primaries by groups like the Chamber and the National Retail Federation has placed blue states squarely in play. Now that strong, articulate, gaff-averse GOP nominees are making the case for a smarter, more relevant, more inclusive Republican Party in places like New Hampshire, Colorado and Iowa, the party is much closer to six – the number of seats needed to secure a Senate majority – than they have been in recent memory.
Business-minded Republicans are taking back the microphones. The party is primed to start winning elections again. But, the GOP is not out of the woods just yet.
Republicans have an inherent structural advantage in Congress, but they have a problem in the electoral map. One look at the 2016 Senate math and the party’s next shot at the White House, and it is clear that the hopefulness could be short-lived.
Amy Walter’s solution – the only way for the Republican Party to avert a future defined by an unsustainable Senate majority and deficits in the Electoral College – is to expand the base. Republicans’ next challenge will be to clearly emphasize what their party endorses, demonstrate that they can govern competently and stand on an inclusive platform that makes the business issues it cares about so deeply relevant to voting blocs who color the GOP out-of-touch.
Republicans have long been conceding demographics that they may not completely win, but should not wholly lose. The party simply needs to accept where the country is moving. Political analysts like Amy Walter recognize and appreciate that the base will not adopt a liberal social agenda. She asks simply that, apropos antagonizing, they cease and desist.
If the party wants to win over young people and women, it does not have to turn the train around – the GOP is populated with practitioners and thought leaders who have good ideas. Democrats elected in 2006 and 2008 have had sufficient time to make their case, and Americans are still asking if anyone in Washington plans to do anything to address some of the structural problems characteristic of our new but not-so-improved economy. Republicans have a real opportunity here.
The grace and integrity with which party leaders communicate, collaborate and govern are nearly as important as their respective economic policy caches. Walter thinks Americans today agree with each other more than they did 20 years ago, but we trust each other less. We find ourselves navigating a state of affairs in which neither Democrats nor Republicans are sure about the guy wearing the other team’s jersey. Republicans have a real opportunity here, too.
Where do we start? For Bruce Josten, the Chamber’s executive vice president for government affairs, the GOP’s message is square one. The void where a prominent opposition leader should be makes effective, cohesive messaging awkward and difficult for Republicans. Josten sees no national theme moving lawmakers in Washington – no issue registers more than 20 percent on an importance scale in public opinion polls. Americans are not upset or excited about one thing in particular. The obvious solution is one voice, clearly articulating the GOP’s smarter, more inclusive message, and the business community is hoping to find one to nominate in 2016.
In the meantime, Republicans have to be better storytellers. The party’s history – its espousal of risk and innovation, of liberty and responsibility, of free enterprise and its capacity – makes for an attractive, relatable, moving story if Republicans running in 2014 and 2016 can agree to tell it right. If they do, business leaders have every reason to be hopeful.