News Column

Reeling GOP Seeks Connection With Fla. Voters

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After a lost election and weeks of futile budget wrangling, the public image of the Republican Party nationally has sunk to what pollsters are calling unprecedented lows.

Some Republicans are even worried about their party's long-term viability.

But Florida Republicans are not overcome with gloom, according to interviews with elected officials, party officials and political strategists.

Several said the party's image woes, while significant, are a cyclical low caused by circumstances that will pass, and won't severely affect Republican candidates at the ballot box.

"Polls are a snapshot in time, and change depending on who the respective standard-bearers are of each party," said Justin Sayfie, a long-time GOP fundraiser and political insider.

"Neither party can claim dominance of the American electorate, especially in Florida," he said, citing GOP control of the state Legislature, governor's office, Cabinet and congressional delegation. "Polls are polls, and nothing more."

Some of those polls, however, have shown scary numbers for the GOP -- disapproval ratings approaching 2 to 1.

In a Pew Research Center poll, 33 percent expressed a favorable opinion of the party and 58 percent negative; the Democratic Party got roughly even ratings, 47 percent favorable and 46 percent unfavorable.

In an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, Republicans got 26 percent positive ratings to 49 percent negative and 24 percent neutral; Democrats got 44 percent positive, 38 percent negative and 17 percent neutral.

A bipartisan Purple Strategies Poll in 12 swing states found 28 percent favorable and 56 percent unfavorable opinions of the GOP, while Democrats got 42 percent favorable and 46 percent unfavorable.

The polls suggest some Republicans have lost satisfaction with their own party. Only 65 percent of Republicans rated their party favorably in the Purple Poll, while 87 percent of Democrats rated their party favorably.

"We've never seen anything like this" in polls going back to 1992, said Pew researcher Michael Dimock.

He said both parties are getting lower ratings than usual, but Republicans "have been in this deeply negative territory for more than two years -- that's pretty new."

Dimock said the negatives "are linked to the impression that they are a party of extremists, unwilling to compromise," and to issues on which the public generally sides with Democrats -- gay rights, abortion, immigration, Social Security and Medicare.

It's worse, he said, because the GOP currently lacks a well-known leader to deliver its message, "a problem the party that's not in the presidency always faces."

Dimock said there's a bright spot: The public is more attuned to the GOP on national debt and fiscal policy, which may dominate the national debate for the next few months.

"The more they can keep the debate on those issues, the better off they'll be," he said.

Retired University of South Florida political scientist Darryl Paulson, a Republican, believes the party's problems may be overstated by the polls, but still worries that its very future could be in question, in part because it faces a demographic time bomb.

By 2020, he said, estimates are that Florida will be 40 percent nonwhite, mainly African-American and Hispanic, "and Republicans are not doing well with either group."

"Unless we can turn things around and come up with a positive agenda that strikes a responsive chord, and people who can articulate that agenda, they take the risk of becoming a regional party, a southern party," he said.

"When that happens, generally the next thing that happens is you become extinct."

He cited the Revolutionary era Federalist Party, which died with its base restricted to New England, and its successor, the Whigs.

Paulson said the GOP's position is similar to Democrats in the 1980s, perceived as "too extreme, too far to the left," too focused on handing federal benefits to aggrieved racial and gender interest groups.

That helped lead to Republican presidential victories in 1980, 1984 and 1988, GOP control of the U.S. House for all but four years since 1994, and a complete Republican takeover of Florida.

In Florida, he noted, Democrats had become complacent after dominating the state since Reconstruction -- but now, he said, the complacency is setting in on the Republican side.

Paulson said dominance of Florida government has made Florida Republicans complacent.

"If this last election wasn't a wake-up call for Republicans in Florida, nothing will be."

For some, it was.

Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland, said the GOP's negative image stems from wasted opportunities by his fellow U.S. House Republicans over the last two years.

The 2010 election produced "the biggest House Republican majority since Reconstruction," he said, but, "We failed miserably."

Instead of passing legislation on immigration, tax reform or health care, he said, they wasted energy on meaningless gestures including 32 votes to repeal Obamacare -- each dying in the Democratic Senate.

Republicans can cling to their House majority because their control of state legislatures gives them power to draw favorable congressional district lines, he said.

"But if we want to win the Senate and the White House, we're going to have to show the American people we're a party of action."

Ross thinks the "no budget, no pay" bill passed by the House last week is a first step in the right direction. It suspends the debt ceiling, on the condition that Congress produces a budget by April, or else congressional salaries will be suspended.

Veteran Florida GOP strategist Sally Bradshaw, part of a five-member task force set up by national GOP Chairman Reince Priebus to recommend changes, is optimistic.

The 2012 loss, she said, will energize the party.

"There's nothing like a loss to make you want to win," she said. "I think you'll se a re-energized party working for every vote, including communities where we haven't done well in the past."

"You're going to see a party that will show their heart more," she said. "We feel we're right on these issues and if we show our passion, more people will listen."

She quoted Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, chairman of the task force: "Things are never as good as they seem or as bad as they seem."

State Republican Party Chairman Lenny Curry, also optimistic, said negative polls on the party's image don't necessarily mean negative views of Republican candidates.

"The old saying is politics is local -- in a county commission race, city council race, state House race, people are going to look at the candidate more than the brand," he said.

But, he acknowledged, "The brand matters," and the GOP brand has been tarnished by bad messaging.

"We've allowed a message to come out that just says we're against everything and that's just not true," he said, before invoking a campaign theme from Ronald Reagan. "That's not the party I fell in love with -- the party that says it's morning in America."

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