This year has been different: GOP activists have given their candidates more space to craft the centrist personas they need to win. First, in senate races in North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky, Alaska, Tennessee, Georgia, Kansas and Texas, comparatively moderate Republicans triumphed over Tea Party-backed challengers. Then many of those Republicans downplayed their opposition to gay marriage and highlighted their support for greater access to contraception in an effort to win over the young and women voters who in past elections spurned the GOP as too extreme. “On social issues,” wrote Slate’s Will Saletan, “Republicans are mumbling, cringing, and ducking. They don’t want the election to be about these issues, even in red states.”
Sincere or not, these efforts to not appear retrograde and extreme helped Republicans say close among women voters. And yet conservatives turned out for them in huge numbers nonetheless. Thus, Republicans in 2014 combined candidate impurity with grassroots passion, which is what they’ll need to do to win in 2016.
Achieving this combination is tougher in presidential elections. It’s hard to deviate from Limbaughesque orthodoxy when you’re competing for the hard right voters who dominate the Iowa caucuses and the South Carolina primary. Still, it’s striking that Rand Paul, the Republican who has been most willing to buck ideological convention on race, crime and foreign policy, has so far not paid a political price. A lot may depend on Ted Cruz: The more successful he becomes, the more pressure other Republican contenders will feel to ape his ultra-right stances. But if the 2010 midterms revealed a GOP fixated on ideological purity, 2014 has showcased the party’s new tolerance, and even enthusiasm, for pragmatism.