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The GOP's Midterm Strategy Is a Lot Like "Seinfeld"

It's a campaign about nothing—but way less funny

Getty Images/Hutton Archive

As if to signal his awareness that there’s a gaping void in the GOP’s midterm election strategy, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus did something a little unusual for a party chairman, and gave a speech about policy.

Republicans have made little secret of the fact that they hope to recapture the Senate in November by exploiting President Obama’s unpopularity rather than pitting their substantive agendas against their opponents. When Priebus says, “People know what we’re against. I want to talk about the things we’re for,” what he means is that his candidates’ conspicuous silence on substantive matters has become a little too conspicuous.

To combat that, he has laid out a list of eleven “Principles for American Renewal.” Most of these will be familiar to students of Republican politics. Some contradict each other, or previous iterations of the Republican agenda. The first principle holds that “Our Constitution should be preserved, valued and honored,” while the third proposes a Constitutional amendment that would force Congress to shred government spending. The eleventh calls for a secure border, whereas the GOP’s 2012 post-mortem called for comprehensive immigration reform.

But the main problem is that Priebus isn’t on the ballot anywhere. The implication is that he’s speaking on behalf of his candidates, but in recent weeks the GOP has worked assiduously to orient those campaigns around trivia. Some of these efforts have been more effective than others, but the playbook has been remarkably consistent. As a counterpose to Priebus’s 11 principles, below are five of the most trivial stories Republicans have seized on in order to define campaigns around issues other than, well, issues.


Priebus is from Wisconsin, which makes you think he’d have more influence on the gubernatorial campaign there than over just about any other race in the country. But instead of welcoming a policy referendum, GOP operatives have pounced on the fact that one of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke’s former campaign consultants recycled some of his own material, and cribbed from others, when he helped draw up her economic white paper, and have used this revelation to lamely accuse Burke herself of plagiarism.


The Senate race here is causing all kinds of unexpected problems for Democrats. Republican Cory Gardner has been running neck and neck with incumbent Mark Udall in recent polls, and is besting him in more than one. So naturally the GOP is taking the opportunity to draw a contrast between Gardner’s agenda and Udall’s, right? Actually, the opposite of that. In the past week, Republicans have accused Udall of being a conspiracy theorist on the basis of his recorded, unintended encounter with some 9/11 truthers. Udall straightforwardly refuted them, but GOP operatives took a couple sentences out of context and tried to bully reporters into taking them at face value. This was pretty shameful. Fortunately, it failed pretty spectacularly.


Republicans probably have the edge in the Iowa Senate race, too. But their biggest weapon isn’t Republican Joni Ernst’s vision for privatizing Social Security or opposing a federal or state minimum wage hike. It’s the false claim that Democrat Bruce Braley threatened to sue a neighbor who let her chickens run loose on his property. Braley has caused plenty of problems for himself but this isn’t one of them.


Questioning a Landrieu’s Louisiana roots is a lot like claiming a Kennedy is out of touch with Massachusetts, but Republicans have tried to make hay out of the fact that she merely shares ownership of a family home in Louisiana, while owning a large house on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., outright. They’re on firmer ground criticizing her for improperly billing taxpayers for political travel (she reimbursed the government for those expenses last month). But they put both stories on the back burner last week to draw attention to the fact that she’d helped a 28-year-old man at a LSU tailgate do a keg stand.


The GOP Senate candidate in North Carolina is currently the state’s Speaker of the House, Thom Tillis, who used his power to incubate a holistic conservative agenda. But he’s losing to Kay Hagan by a small margin. And as such, Republicans have seized on the fact that Hagan’s husband’s firm received a few hundred thousand dollars in stimulus grants, raising the specter of corruption, despite no hint of impropriety. As it turns out, Tillis also benefited from federal funds, after voting to make North Carolina eligible for renewable energy tax credits, which just underscores the unseriousness of the GOP's attack on Hagan.


Anticipating a predictable objection, yes Democrats sometimes turn trivia into campaign fodder, too. I remember Binders Full of Women. But there's a difference between accenting a substantive race with b.s. and making b.s. the centerpiece of the campaign.