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Five Ways Republicans Screwed Up in 2013 (According to a Conservative)

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Republicans have had, contrary to what The New Republic often claims, a pretty good year. The Affordable Care Act has had a disastrous start and President Barack Obama's approval rating has even dipped below 40 percent in some polls. The GOP will hold the House in 2014, at least 10 Senate seats are in play, and the GOP has a growing stable of promising, well-known 2016 contenders like Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Rand Paul, and perhaps even Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.

But the GOP certainly didn't pitch a perfect game in 2013. Here are five mistakes Republicans made this year from a conservative perspective.

Rand Paul plagiarized 

Senator Paul was responsible for one the party's finest moments this year with his epic filibuster over U.S. drone strikes. He addressed a host of other issues in vogue among younger conservatives and libertarians, like mandatory minimums, NSA spying, and staying out of Syria. A growing, bipartisan consensus pegged him as a 2016 frontrunner. Then he plagiarized, and it became clear that he had done so on several occasions—both in speeches and a book he wrote. Worse yet, his response to the allegations was childish and sullen. Instead of owning up to his mistakes and apologizing, Paul accused “haters” of wanting to destroy his career. 

Ken Cuccinelli lost 

Virginia has transformed from a red state into a solidly purple one where Obama won reelection by 4 percent. The 2013 governor’s race was always going to be competitive, but Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe had serious issues. He had no experience in office, shady dealings with business associates, and infamously ditched his wife during childbirth to fundraise. Even Mother Jones can’t stand the guy. Enter Ken Cuccinelli. Cuccinelli’s largest liability was the Star Scientific scandal. Story after story appeared about gifts from Jonnie Williams to Governor Bob McDonnell, and Cuccinelli couldn’t distance himself from McDonnell because he too had accepted $18,000 from Williams. Nor did his support for making sodomy and oral sex illegal in Virginia (again) help his cause. Despite the baggage, the race ebbed and flowed. The final margin was only 2.5 percent. Nevertheless, national Republican support for the Cuccinelli campaign was low throughout. So not only did Republicans have a weak nominee, they refused to give him adequate support even though it could have made the difference in a very close race. 

Religious liberty took a hit

Many conservatives have conceded that the country is moving inexorably toward equal marriage rights for gay couples. But the right has failed to capitalize on a piece of the debate that's a winning issue for them: the infringement of religious liberty. In Colorado, a judge ordered a baker to serve gay customers, or face fines, after the baker refused on religious grounds to sell a wedding cake to a gay couple. In New Mexico, two photographers are appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court after the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that their refusal to work a gay wedding was discriminatory under state law. Hobby Lobby, the arts-and-crafts chain, continues to fight provisions of Obamacare that require some companies' insurance plans to cover birth control without a co-pay, which the Green family says violates their Christian beliefs; the Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case. 

But most folks outside of evangelical and Catholic circles have never heard these stories. When the government forces people to do things against their will, it typically doesn’t play out well in the public. Republicans would be wise to take up the cause of religious liberty and finally use the tolerance argument in their favor. 

Abortion battle is too small-ball

For weeks, the Kermit Gosnell trial horrified the country with its lurid details of child murder. For once, it wasn’t just conservatives questioning whether late-term abortion should be legal. Initially, it seemed Republicans were ready to make a case for more restrictions on abortion—Iowa passed a law banning "telemedicine abortion" and Texas passed one that's certain to close a number of clinics. The House of Representatives passed the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, but it died in the Senate. Beyond that, not much has happened. One poll found that, for the first time in recent history, the majority of people believe abortion should be illegal. Republicans are going to get attacked by Democrats on this issue regardless of what they do, so they should make the case to the American people that more regulation of clinics and less abortions is a good thing. While the state-based approach has had success, Republicans on the federal level have quieted down since the failure of above bill. They should be pushing for making abortion illegal at the point of fetal viability.

The government was shut down 

Ah, Ted Cruz. He brought us the government shutdown and a faux-filibuster that only served to distract the media from Obamacare's disastrous rollout. At a time when Democrats should have been reeling from a PR disaster—as the party is now—Republicans instead were taking all of the blame for the shutdown, which also happened to be a massive waste of taxpayer dollars. No more, please.

Republicans spent the majority of 2013 making clear to Americans what they stand against. That worked well with Obamacare, but less so with the budget and debt ceiling. Now's the time to start talking about what the GOP stands for. Next year won’t be as kind to them if they don’t.