Articles

How Senate Republicans Can Close The Sale

October 01, 2014

Thursday morning, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus is delivering a speech at George Washington University titled "Principles for American Renewal."

The 11 Republican principles he will offer are timeless. They include "we should leave the next generation opportunity, not debt" and "our country should value the traditions of family, life, religious liberty and hard work." The challenge for Republicans is to apply this thematic framework to current circumstances in a way that sways independent middle-class voters and mobilizes Republicans. To help this process, the RNC polled large numbers of independent and Republican voters in June and August, testing phrases drawn from speeches by officeholders and candidates on these issues. The goal was to help find the more effective ways to explain these principles.

The findings provide insights into how to talk about the economy, the budget and debt, national security and other issues. For example, the surveys suggest that the most powerful way for Republicans to begin any discussion of ObamaCare is to say that they believe "health-care decisions should be made by patients and their doctors, not Washington." Simple, but helpful to know.

As useful as Mr. Priebus's 11 principles and the suggested language are, they are offered with 33 days left for candidates to adopt, adapt and deploy them before Election Day. Of course, even if they had been rolled out months ago, the GOP would still face difficulties in presenting a coherent national agenda. It is always a challenge for the minority party to offer a disciplined, galvanizing national message without control of the White House.

The GOP's 1994 Contract With America is a useful model, but not quite in the way most people think. The contract succeeded not because it was unveiled at a rally in late September 1994 on the Capitol steps, but because for months before the rally, its priorities and language helped shape the messages of hundreds of candidates across the country. The rally was closer to being the culmination of the race than the starting gun.

The good news is that many Republican Senate candidates have worked hard this year to spell out a concrete agenda tailored to their states' needs. The National Republican Senatorial Committee helped by robustly investing in candidate speech and debate training and by providing extensive access to policy experts and briefing materials. The candidates and the NRSC assumed that while linking Democratic candidates to President Obama was necessary, it wasn't sufficient.

These Republicans knew by each offering an agenda of specific proposals, GOP candidates would help voters understand better their values and character. They would also show that they want to do something for America, not just obstruct for their party. Both are critical to winning swing voters who will decide whether Sen. Harry Reid remains majority leader.

The GOP is fortunate to have Senate contenders who are, almost to a person, fluent and comfortable talking about pro-growth policies like tax reform and regulatory relief, spending restraint to reduce the debt, health-care reforms to replace ObamaCare and energy policies like the Keystone XL pipeline. And with four combat veterans among them, they're effectively making the case for a strong national defense.

The cumulative weight of their efforts has helped move public opinion toward the GOP. In the Sept. 7 Gallup Poll, Americans by a 49% to 40% margin said they felt Republicans would do a better job than Democrats of keeping the country prosperous. That's one point better than at a comparable juncture in 2010. In the Sept. 7 poll, Americans by 55% to 32% said the GOP would do a better job of protecting the country from terrorism and military threats. That's a 10-point improvement from this point in 2010.

Those perceptions are helping Republican chances. In the Real Clear Politics average of public polls, there has been a clear movement since Sept. 22 toward the GOP. Despite a significant recent increase in negative attack ads from Sen. Reid's Super PAC and liberal and labor special-interest groups, 10 of the 11 Republicans in the most competitive races for Democratic Senate seats improved or maintained their ballot position. Republicans now lead in contests for eight Democratic seats, enough for a GOP majority,

Republicans have a month to close the sale. It won't be easy, and because Democrats are desperate and loaded with cash, it won't be pretty. The way for Republicans to extend their leads or move ahead in the final stretch is not to be cautious, timid or unclear.

A version of this article appeared October 2, 2014, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline How Senate Republicans Can Close The Sale and online at WSJ.com.

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