Conservative activists fear that lack of a national theme or agenda for this election cycle will depress conservative turnout, leaving Republicans with — at best — a bare Senate majority rather than the larger wave that some political observers have predicted.
“One of the things you must give the voters is a tune they can whistle, and Republicans are not doing that this time,” longtime conservative fundraiser Richard Viguerie tells National Review Online. Instead, party leadership is too passive in waiting for Democrats to self-destruct, according to activists.
“The concern is that the Republicans are trying to drift past the finish line, and it reminds me a lot of the Mitt Romney 2012 strategy of sort of running out the clock,” FreedomWorks president Matt Kibbe tells National Review Online. “Republicans never do nearly as well as they think they will by running on issue-less campaigns.”
Viguerie hopes to change that by persuading Senator Ted Cruz (R., Texas) to coordinate with activists in an effort to nationalize the 2014 races by focusing on immigration, national security, and the “culture of lies” and “lawlessness” in President Obama’s administration, an umbrella category that covers everything from Obamacare to the IRS.
“Cruz could do this,” Viguerie says. He also mentions that he has reached out to the senator and other activists about the idea. “Cruz has the respect, the admiration, the trust of conservatives, [so] that if he wanted to provide this leadership, conservatives would fall in line.”
“For me, it’s beyond hope; it’s an expectation that he’s going to do that,” Media Research Center president Brent Bozell tells NRO.
In the meantime, Tea Party activists aren’t waiting for instructions. “What we’re focused on is making sure that, as much as we possibly can, we are setting the stage so that there will not be executive amnesty during the lame-duck session or during Congress next year,” says Jenny Beth Martin of the Tea Party Patriots. “And we continue to push the need to repeal Obamacare and start over with health-care reform.”
That message is very similar to the one that Cruz is already articulating. “Senator Cruz believes that the midterm elections should be a referendum on the Democrats’ approach to amnesty, Obamacare, national security, and the Bill of Rights,” Cruz spokeswoman Catherine Frazier tells NRO. “That is the message that Senator Cruz is taking across the country, and that is what he believes should be the prime focus of Republicans as we approach the 2014 midterm elections.”
The idea that conservative enthusiasm will be a problem in November, however, is belied by the number of small-dollar donations to the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The GOP team tasked with retaking the Senate has seen those donations rise to record highs — 5 percent more than in 2012 and 3 percent higher than in 2010. Small-dollar donations are a leading indicator of activist energy.
Polling also shows GOP voters more engaged in the upcoming midterms than their Democratic counterparts. A Pew Research Center survey in early September found that just 69 percent of Democratic voters say they will “definitely” vote in November (the same percentage that said so in 2010). Eighty-one percent of Republican respondents are determined to vote, compared with 83 percent in 2010.
The enthusiasm-gap polling doesn’t allay the activists’ concerns. “I can tell you anecdotally, just talking to our activists, they’re not working as hard as they did in 2012 or certainly 2010,” Kibbe tells NRO. And it’s not like they’re not going to show up and vote against Democrats that passed Obamacare, but, at the margin, will they spend their weekends getting out the vote and knocking on the door with neighbors? That’s the problem. The energy level is lower this year.”
It’s not just members of the activist groups who have sounded such an alarm. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich raised the same point last month during a candid conversation with some of the men and women who took office in 1994.
“The fact that we do not have positive themes and positive issues is going to cost us seats this fall because moderates and independents aren’t going to turn out,” he said, faulting Republican leadership for failing to provide such an agenda.
“Nobody here should assume we understand what’s going to happen on Election Day, because you have a population in turmoil,” Gingrich also said. “They don’t like anybody, and they have good sound reasons for it, in my judgment.”
As activists debate their next move, the chatter has given rise to some concern that voicing their protests would be destructive rather than productive.
“If the party, the candidates, and the base are at odds going into the last month of the election, that’s a recipe to lose it,” one conservative Senate aide said. “There’s a way to talk about these issues that is productive and helpful, and there is a way to talk about it in a way that is incredibly unhelpful.”
Although there is a good deal of frustration among conservative activists as a result of the Senate-primary fights around the country, they say they’ll be team players until after the election.
“The local leaders that I’m in touch with understand that President Obama cannot continue to have the rubber stamp from the United States Senate that he has right now,” Jenny Beth Martin says. “Although we don’t appreciate how we’ve been treated, we still understand that there is something greater at stake.”
Viguerie offers a similar sentiment. “We’re not going to give the Republicans a hard time on this,” he says. “This is not the time to do that. We’re going to just go after the Democrats.”
— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review Online.