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The GOP Now Likes Community Organizing (If It Wins Elections)

Both parties are sounding confident right now about their midterm election prospects, but only one can be right. As it stands now, Republicans clearly have more reason for optimism.

On their side, Republicans have history and a current political environment in which the Republican base looks to be more excited about the coming election than Democrats.

Meanwhile, voters are consistently telling pollsters that they're dissatisfied with the nation's direction, which usually portends bad news for the party holding the White House.

At a briefing for journalists Wednesday, the GOP also contended that it has raised its technology game to the juggernaut level of President Obama's 2008 and 2012 campaigns, in terms of identifying which voters need more persuasion to get to the polls. We'll know in November if that's the case.

Something we can say now with assurance, however, is that "community organizing" no longer seems to be a dirty term in the Republican Party, as when Sarah Palin used it disdainfully to describe one of Obama's early, post-college jobs.

Mike Shields, chief of staff for the Republican National Committee, used the term positively to describe the kind of grass-roots work that party officials say they've been doing for months to make certain they can turn out their voters in November.

Asked whether Republicans were "emulating" the Obama campaign, Shields said no, they're trying to surpass it. He used the metaphor of the space race. "I always say, the Democrats put up Sputnik, we can put a man on the moon," Shields said.

A Democratic National Committee spokesman dismissed the GOP briefing as an example of how Republicans still don't get it. "The Republican Party's problem has never been the number of press releases or staff — their problem continues to be their message, their candidates and their policies," the DNC's Michael Czin said in a statement. He added:

"Tactical tweaks — and trying to reverse engineer what Democrats have done for more than a decade — won't change the fact that a stunning 73 percent of Americans disapprove of the job Republicans in Congress are doing."

In any event, few professional political observers at this point question that the climate looks more robust by the day for Republicans to not only hold but expand their numbers on the federal and state level, and perhaps to take control of the Senate.

"The Democrats have a historical problem; they have a geographic problem," said Rob Collins, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Historically, the party holding the White House loses an average of 6.6 Senate seats during midterm elections in a president's second term, going back to the 1950s, Collins said. Republicans only need six seats to gain the Senate majority and control of Congress.

The geographic problem has remained the same throughout the current election cycle: Mitt Romney won in six states with contested seats whose Senate Democratic incumbents are either retiring or considered very vulnerable — Alaska, Arkansas, North Carolina, Louisiana, West Virginia and Montana. By contrast, Republicans up for re-election (14) are running in states where Romney won all but one (Maine).

But what's mainly buoying Republican hopes is Obama's weak approval ratings. The president's approval ratings are barely above 40 percent in a number of polls and even lower in states Republicans are focused on winning.

Voters are telling pollsters they're still concerned about the economy and the crises in immigration, Veterans Affairs and the Mideast. These issues leave the impression of presidential ineffectiveness in many minds, so Obama's approval ratings are unlikely to significantly improve.

"When the president gets a cold nationally, he gets pneumonia in states that we care about," Collins said.

That comment suggested how much Republicans had to smile about as they scanned the political landscape.

One of the few times the smiles left their faces was when a reporter asked about the role the Tea Party would play in the midterm elections.

GOP officials Liesl Hickey, Rob Collins, Phil Cox and Matt Walter grew serious when a reporter asked about the Tea Party's role in the midterm elections.
Frank James / NPR
GOP officials Liesl Hickey, Rob Collins, Phil Cox and Matt Walter grew serious when a reporter asked about the Tea Party's role in the midterm elections.

"Some of the louder voices, it does not inure to their bottom lines to get along with us, so they choose not to," Collins said, voicing the criticism by the party's establishment that some Tea Party opposition has been driven more by fundraising considerations than by principle. "But where we can work together, we will."

Shields of the RNC spun the Tea Party's presence as positive and contributing to a useful internal dialogue for the party after the 2012 elections.

"What's come out of the other end is a very motivated base," he said. "I daresay the Democrats wish they had a Tea Party in their party to help them be motivated and turn out."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.
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