When the Republican Party rolled out its “Growth and Opportunity Project” report one year ago on March 18, it was an unprecedented step by a national political party still reeling from defeat and uncertain of where to go. Morbidly nicknamed the “autopsy” by some, it offered over 100 recommendations for Republican candidates, party leaders, and operatives to implement, focusing heavily on the need for structural improvements: better data, bigger field operations, and increased outreach programs.
Yet it also made some surprisingly bold statements about the party’s struggle to win over critical groups of voters and to shed its damaged brand. In short, as the report itself noted, “Some people say, ‘Republicans Don’t Care.’” The party’s problems were with both its machine and its message.
Anyone who’s ever made a New Year’s resolution knows it’s relatively easy to write a laundry list of things you want to do: lose five pounds, eat more vegetables, stop being late. But it’s much harder to actually do them. On the first anniversary of the report, there’s a lot the Republican Party has done, though there’s much still left to accomplish.
First, let’s start with the positive: The infrastructure of the GOP is in far better shape, and it is beginning to pay dividends. A shifted focus onto smart, robust field operations has put more volunteers out on the sidewalks, knocking on doors and getting voters to the polls. The Republican National Committee (RNC) proudly notes that such improvements helped win last week’s special election in Florida’s 13th Congressional District, and contributed to Chris Christie’s reelection victory in New Jersey, where he won half of the Hispanic vote.
Republicans have also launched their own in-house start-up and have been recruiting heavily for data scientists and engineers, opening offices in Silicon Valley in order to lure top tech talent that is less than thrilled with the thought of moving to the Beltway. Procedurally, they are working on avoiding the brutally long and damaging primary season that hindered the Romney campaign in 2012.
It’s not a fancy new slogan or a single candidate-slash-savior swooping in to save the day, but rather, it’s a much better, much-needed solid framework that can set up future wins.
But there’s still a long, long way to go. Last week’s NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed only 27 percent of voters have a positive view of the GOP, a slight decline from a year ago. While the Democrats don’t fare much better and have fallen further in the last year, it underscores the steep climb Republicans have ahead of them.
There’s a very good chance that, despite all this, Republicans will do quite well in November’s mid-term elections. Voters who are still disenchanted with the GOP may be so disappointed by the President or put-off by the rocky rollout of the Affordable Care Act that they vote Republican anyhow or stay home on Election Day. Voter groups that tend to be more Republican also tend to have stronger turnout in midterms. President Obama himself has voiced frustration that his own party is seemingly surrendering the 2014 elections.
If you recall the Republican domination of the 2010 elections, where a wave put over 60 new Congressional seats in GOP hands, the reason why Republicans did so well depends on who you ask: messaging about Medicare cuts, the Tea Party, frustration about government spending, gerrymandering, or the relentless asking of the question “Where are the jobs?”
With no real consensus, there was no clear path forward into 2012. The big wins offered something of a “false positive” that all was A-OK for the GOP, and effectively shut down much of the conversation about what the Republican Party needed to do long-term to put itself in a position to win a presidential election. Those sounding the alarm about the demographic and strategic challenges of the GOP were left playing Cassandra, warning “danger ahead” to a few interested listeners.
It wasn’t until the Growth and Opportunity Project report that those concerns were truly put down on paper, where hopefully they’d be harder to discard or neglect in the joy of one good election cycle. The risk of another “false positive” in 2014 still looms, but there’s something to be said for having a plan in writing to keep things on track.
It would be impossible to cure all that ailed the GOP in the course of a single calendar year. The party’s struggles were not created overnight and will not be solved overnight. Thankfully, the report was not just words on a page: There has been a lot of structural improvement in field staff, data, and digital that will support Republican victories this fall.
But if Republicans are serious about winning again, they won’t assume they’ve completed their comeback just yet. As the Growth and Opportunity Project report turns one year old, bring out the birthday cake and blow out the candles, but remember there’s still a lot to wish for.