Let’s assume for a minute that the GOP doesn’t grasp defeat from the jaws of victory — that two weeks from now they take the U.S. Senate and hold the House. Then what?
Then Republicans celebrate, right? Wrong.
The dynamics that allow a party to do well in the midterms bear little resemblance to a presidential election. For one thing, the turnout models are vastly different (midterms skew older, whiter, etc.). What is more, only a third of the senate is up for re-election, and it just so happens that many of the seats up this time around are red states featuring Democratic incumbents. Additionally, when one considers that voters are more likely voting against a man who won’t be on the ballot again (President Obama) than for any conservative policy proposals, it would be insane to interpret a strong performance in November of 2014 as evidence of a mandate.
In fact, not only would winning this midterm not be a clear harbinger of things to come, it could actually be counterproductive if it a). causes Republicans to assume everything’s OK, and b). provides an excuse for failing to address lingering and fundamental strategic and messaging problems.
Anyone who follows politics closely knows that Republicans have a long way to go in order to compete with the technological machine Team Obama built to mine data in order to identify, persuade, and turn out voters on Election Day. As the Wall Street Journal recently reported, the GOP has hired a tech guru to develop a “unified information hub,” however, it won’t be ready to test in time for the midterms. Systems can be tested later, and kinks can be worked out in trial runs and off-year elections, but this is a problem. (Now, having inferior technology probably won’t overcome the Republican zeitgeist that’s taking place as I type, but anyone who thinks winning in November of 2014 means Republican infrastructure is up to speed isn’t paying attention.)
The good news is that RNC Chairman Reince Priebus has taken strong steps to mitigate the messaging disasters of the last two cycles. It would be nice if, for the good of the party, some of the clown car perennial candidates would skip this one, but that’s probably too much to ask. By limiting the number of debates, and having a say in the moderators, Priebus has done his part to avoid repeating past mistakes. The candidates can do their part by being prepared to succinctly and appropriately answer “wedge” questions about things like birth control, global warming, evolution, etc.
I said earlier that one of the dangers of winning is that it might provide an excuse to postpone doing some hard work. One of the wrong lessons to learn would be that Republicans don’t have to worry about wooing Hispanics. As an analysis by The Upshot demonstrated, “Republicans would probably hold the House — and still have a real chance to retake the Senate — if they lost every single Hispanic voter in the country.” Taken to heart, this might incline Republicans to focus solely on doubling-down on old white voters. The problem for the GOP, of course, is that this is a growing segment of the population, and that their votes might come in handy in a high-turnout presidential election when you need to win a state like Florida or Nevada.
If the GOP does everything right — catches up technologically, preps candidates to handle tough questions, doesn’t avoid addressing fundamental challenges (just because they won in 2014) — keeping the winning streak alive is still going to come down to which candidate wins the nomination. As famed Oriole manager Earl Weaver said: “Momentum is the next day’s starting pitcher.”
It would be silly for a political party to put too much emphasis on specific policy proposals, since the positions of the candidates can vary wildly. But whoever the nominee is had better be prepared to have specific and serious plans for addressing serious issues, including a health care plan (overturning Obamacare won’t be enough.) I recently argued that Republicans don’t need to be too specific in order to win in 2014, and I stand by that. And what I’m saying here — the whole point of this essay — is that 2016 will be nothing like 2014.