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The Republican Party's Remarkable Non-Transformation

NPR knocked on doors throughout Colorado to find out how individual voters were responding to Democratic and Republican appeals in the lead up to Election Day.
Molly Messick
NPR knocked on doors throughout Colorado to find out how individual voters were responding to Democratic and Republican appeals in the lead up to Election Day.

Sometime after the polls close Tuesday night, we'll find out if Republicans managed a spectacular feat.

The party that lost the last two presidential elections is seeking a comeback, adding control of the Senate to control of the House. Republicans aim to dominate Congress with a fresh presidential election looming in 2016. It would be, in one of the hackneyed phrases of journalism, "a remarkable transformation."

It's better described as a "non-transformation." The GOP has waged this campaign without altering a single one of the major political positions that supposedly doom the party to demographic oblivion.

Opposition to immigration reform was supposed to permanently lose the growing Latino vote. Opposition to abortion rights and gay marriage was supposed to permanently lose the millennial generation. Knee-jerk opposition to President Obama was supposed to turn off moderate and minority voters. Even opposition to Obamacare was expected to be a millstone for the GOP, once its benefits became apparent.

The party has not really changed course. Republicans who tried have been chastened. So how has the GOP arrived at Election Day with an excellent chance to capture the Senate?

Partly it's that the GOP benefits from quirks of the election system. Many Senate seats up for grabs this year are in conservative states. Here's how political analyst Amy Walter summarized the GOP approach: "We're going to win [the Senate] in red states ... and we don't have to make some of these changes ... like expanding the party to include minority voters, reaching out to younger voters."

Something more is happening, too. Without really altering their positions, Republicans updated the way they talk about hot-button issues. They seek to minimize their weaknesses before a changing electorate. That has left Democrats struggling to highlight Republican vulnerabilities.

Doorstopping the Front Range

Wanting to hear how individual voters are responding to Democratic and Republican appeals, we knocked on doors in Colorado.

The Senate race there is very close. Democratic Sen. Mark Udall faces a challenge from Republican Cory Gardner, currently a member of the House.

Colorado, once a red state, has turned purple. We saw one reason why in Platteville, tiny farm town, population 2,568. Like so much of the state, this rural outpost has a growing Latino population. Local resident Lucy Montoya told us that at the Spanish-style Catholic church, "We have had such an influx of the Hispanic population that we went from having one English mass to then having a bilingual mass, and now we have one mass in English and one mass in Spanish every week."

The area's Latino community includes Mexican restaurant owner Jose Lozano, an immigrant from Mexico, now a U.S. citizen at age 38. Asked how he votes, he said simply, "I'm a Democrat," and added that he's concerned about the Republican candidate's past opposition to immigration reform.

Surely Colorado is also a swing state because of voters like Wayne Pulick. We met him when we knocked on a door in Lakewood, Colo. and discovered a dinner party inside. Five friends were sipping wine and enjoying takeout from Alameda Burrito, a local place that they highly recommended even though it is attached to a gas station.

The dinner companions were mostly Democrats, but not Pulick. "I'm a registered Republican," he told us. "I used to vote on the basis of who was the best for the job. But then two terms of [President George W.] Bush convinced me to be more extreme." Like everyone at the table, he's a vote for the Democrat, Mark Udall, this year.

Republican Repositioning

In recent years, the GOP did indeed seem too far right for Colorado. In 2010, Democrat Michael Bennet won a Colorado Senate race, painting the GOP nominee as far too conservative, especially on women's reproductive rights.

One national Republican official told me his party lost Colorado in 2010 even though "we had a gorilla on the scale" — a national wave of unrest over the Great Recession. In 2014 the nation is less discontented, but the Republicans still have "a thumb on the scale," and they don't want to blow it again.

This time the GOP nominee is Cory Gardner, a conservative member of the raucous House of Representatives, who has made every effort not to seem excessively conservative or raucous.

Early in the campaign, Gardner supported over-the-counter contraceptives, a way of advertising that he wasn't opposed to birth control. He also disavowed his past support for a proposed "personhood" amendment to Colorado's constitution, which would require an embryo to be defined as a human being under the state criminal code, with potential consequences for abortion, in vitro fertilization, and some forms of birth control. Though Gardner has supported such measures at both the state and federal levels, he publicly turned against such a measure on Colorado's 2014 ballot.

One voter we met was exceedingly doubtful of the sincerity of Gardner's reversal. If he supported a personhood amendment in the past, said Taylor Dybdahl, of Lakewood, "he might do it in the future. He's saying that he's not supporting it now just to get elected." She's 21, a college student, and a single woman — the kind of voter Democrats depend on.

But Gardner's shift has clouded the issue. When Democrats attacked him on women's rights — following a formula that worked in 2010 — they provoked a backlash. The Denver Post accused Udall of "seeking to frighten voters" and endorsed Gardner. Most voters we interviewed, if they were following the campaign at all, were left with an impression of an ugly and negative contest.

National Trends

The Republican operative contended Gardner is running a strong race simply because he "hasn't said anything stupid." Numerous past GOP candidates have been sunk by sharp-edged remarks that prompted voters to focus on their views on social issues. Gardner hasn't.

The Republican operative described Gardner as setting an example. When other Senate candidates — Joni Ernst of Iowa or Tom Cotton of Arkansas — have been questioned on hot-button issues, "we send them Gardner's stuff."

Other Republican candidates are also minimizing their vulnerabilities. In Kentucky, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell remains formally opposed to Obamacare — but knowing that Kentucky's health care exchange has met with much success, he publicly declared the state exchange "fine."

In New Hampshire, a Republican House candidate, Marilinda Garcia, typifies the GOP approach to another hot-button issue, gay marriage. "Some issues," she told us in September, aren't "the battle anymore. So I think that with time, we'll just see a whole different set of issues."

In other words, courts are rapidly deciding the issue in favor of gay marriage, allowing Republicans to remain silent.

Republicans' low profile may be working. In Colorado, gay marriage was legalized just a few weeks ago. Yet when we asked voters about their major issues or concerns, not a single one brought up the subject.

Decided Republicans, Uncertain Democrats

By minimizing their vulnerabilities, Republicans have complicated Democratic efforts to fire up their core voters.

Democratic voters instead are thinking of President Obama, whose popularity has sagged. Samy Wahabrebi, a Sudanese immigrant and U.S. citizen we met in the Denver suburb of Aurora, told us he voted for the president in 2008, but has been disappointed since. "I was expecting more," he said.

In our Colorado interviews, Republicans expressed fewer doubts. In Lakewood, Sue Berg, 82, let us into her living room, where she tended to a miniature greyhound while watching Fox News. As we walked in, television host Bill O'Reilly was denouncing Harry Reid, the Senate Democratic leader.

A moment later, as we began our interview, Berg declared: "I think they should get rid of Reid."

Does this mean Republicans will win the Senate?

Not necessarily. Democrats retain a powerful get-out-the-vote operation, which gives them hope.

But if Republicans do prevail without really changing their positions, there may be consequences.

Some Republicans with an eye on the presidential race in 2016 have been eager to reorient their party. They want to significantly change GOP positions on issues like immigration. The party's failure to keep up with trends in public opinion will be harder to minimize in the brighter light and larger electorate of a presidential year.

They could try for change after Tuesday's election.

But that will be hard: Most Republicans in Congress will have been elected without really calling for a new course.

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Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.