Republican Rebranding? What Republican Rebranding?

Beth Reinhard

A year after electoral defeat, seven months after an ambitious blueprint to modernize, expand, and win back the White House, the Republican brand is still damaged goods.

Republicans are getting the brunt of the blame for a government shutdown that reinforces the negative image laced through the 2012 exit polling of a party that's extreme and out of touch. Immigration reform, viewed as pivotal to keeping pace with an increasingly diverse electorate, is stalled in the Republican-controlled House. As the shutdown persists and the debt ceiling crisis looms, the divide is widening between a conservative grassroots that relishes the showdown over Obamacare and a political establishment that believes the standoff is hindering its goal of becoming the governing party.

In its latest party-building effort, the RNC hosted a Hispanic Heritage month reception Tuesday amid plans to dispatch field operatives to seven states with growing Hispanic populations. But against the backdrop of thousands of protestors on the National Mall demanding congressional Republicans take up immigration reform, it was the latest example of the national party making progress on mechanics, not messaging.

"It's like one step forward, two steps back," said Florida-based Republican consultant Sally Bradshaw, one of the co-chairs of the RNC review of the 2012 election. "The RNC is committed to the issues we raised, but I feel personally frustrated because I still see some members of our party who just don't get it."

There are early signs of fallout in the 2013-2014 election cycle. Though Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli spent the last 10 days trying to distance himself from the shutdown, two polls released Tuesday showed him falling behind Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia governor's race.

"He's the first casualty," whispers one prominent national party leader.

Democrats running for statewide office in 2014, from likely Florida gubernatorial contender Charlie Crist to Georgia Senate candidate Michelle Nunn, are positioning themselves to capitalize on the shutdown with bi-partisan appeals in mainstream media.

Three of Nunn's Republican rivals, Reps. Paul Broun, Phil Gingrey and Jack Kingston, are Republican House members who voted to fund the government only if the health care law was delayed. So did some of the GOP's other promising Senate candidates, including Reps. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana. It's "Bill Cassidy's Government Shutdown," declared the Louisiana Democratic Party in an e-mail blast on Tuesday assigning exclusive blame.

The Democratic National Committee and Organizing for Action, the advocacy arm of President Obama's campaign, are using the shutdown to hammer Republicans in television spots, on-line ads, automated calls, and social media. "Tell the tea party, enough already!" says the OFA ad.

A string of Republican-weary polls is laying the groundwork for the media blitz. The latest United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll finds two out of three Americans disagree with the Republican strategy of tying the health care law to funding the federal government. A recent CNN poll reported 69 percent of Americans think congressional Republicans are "acting like spoiled children." Republicans in Congress hit new lows in a recent Quinnipiac University survey that looked at approval rating and a generic match-up against a Democratic candidate.

The Democratic Party and President Obama also are losing ground, but survey after survey shows Republicans getting the lion's share of the blame.

Even Cuccinelli, who as the state attorney general crusaded to repeal the health care law, has found himself doing damage control over the shutdown. He's called for members of Congress to decline paychecks and for furloughed workers to get paid. He also aired a radio spot declaring he "opposes a government shutdown" and made sure he was not photographed at a recent event with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, whose 21-hour speech on the Senate floor precipitated the budget impasse.

It isn't helping, said Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, which found McAuliffe leading Cuccinelli by nine points in a new poll. More than one out of 10 Republicans who cite the state's business climate is their biggest concern say they won't vote for Cuccinelli.

"I think the shutdown does hurt Cuccinelli because it's consistent with a larger narrative that McAuliffe has encouraged, which is that he wants to force his views on people," Kidd said. "Even though Cruz didn't stand on stage with Cuccinelli, the coverage linked Cuccinelli's campaign to what's going on in Washington in a way that confirms some people's suspicions about him."

The shutdown is also casting Congress's few accomplishments this year into sharp relief. Lawmakers renewed the Violence Against Women Act and approved aid to Hurricane Sandy victims only after overcoming fierce resistance from Republican conservatives. Slashing food stamp funding by $40 billion and outlawing abortion after 20 weeks were among the only other major bills that cleared the Republican-led House. As millions of uninsured Americans start signing up under the new health care law, the shutdown looks like a lost cause that's done little to promote Republican priorities of cutting federal spending, reforming entitlement programs, and reducing the national debt.

"It's imperative for Republicans in Washington to talk more about what we're for," said Ed Gillespie, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee. "Giving voice to anger and frustration helps energize our core voters, but it doesn't energize voters in the middle who are going to respond more to hope and optimism than to talk of defunding, repealing and blocking things."

Gillespie now leads the Republican State Leadership Committee, which aims to recruit hundreds of minority and female candidates by 2014. On Tuesday, the RSLC announced that one of the most prominent Hispanic Republicans in the country, former Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuno, was joining its board. Fortuno, who headlined the RNC's Hispanic Heritage reception on Tuesday, said the party's outreach to the fastest-growing slice of the electorate will fall short without immigration reform passing Congress. According to a recent on-line survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, less than three in ten Hispanics say they feel closer to the Republican Party than they did in the past.

"If someone feels we don't want them here, the thrust of our principles will not get through and it will be very difficult to get a Republican president elected," Fortuno said.

Meanwhile, the official party apparatus is doing what it can to make good on some of the promises made in the 97-page "Growth and Opportunity Project" released in March.

Building a ground game is underway in Virginia and New Jersey, which will hold gubernatorial elections next month. The RNC hired a former Facebook engineer as its chief technology officer and opened a Silicon Valley office. The party is also hiring a small army to make inroads in the African-American, Hispanic, and Asian-American communities, while Chairman Reince Priebus has made a spree of appearances before minority audiences and media outlets.

Priebus has also vowed to move up the nominating convention and limit the number of primary debates so the party can invest more time and resources into the 2016 general election.

"At the mechanical level there has been a lot of progress and all of that is terribly important, but as far as messaging it's fair to say alarm bells are ringing," said former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, another co-chair of the RNC report. "You can't reach conclusions about next November while we're in the middle of this fight, but our overall image has still not recovered."

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