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June 23, 2014

E.J. DIONNE: 2014: The year of living negatively

STILLWATER, Okla. — Republicans feel good about this fall's election even though their party is sharply divided and its brand is badly tainted.

The House GOP last week elected a balanced ticket of leaders in a relatively harmonious process. Nonetheless, the party's right still complained that its voices were not heard.

Is it any wonder that the GOP's governing game plan for the rest of the year is to do as little as possible? Since the party can't agree to anything that would pass muster with President Obama and the Democratic Senate, it will bet that Obama's low poll ratings will be enough for them to make gains in House races and could give them control of the Senate.

All of this is why 2014 will be the year of living negatively.

 The prospect of months of attacks and more attacks reflects the depth of disillusionment with Washington. This is the best thing Republicans have going for them, but it might also provide Democrats with their clearest path to holding the Senate. Consider the findings of last week's NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

The number that got the most attention was the president's depressed 41 percent approval rating. But the survey also found that only 29 percent had a positive view of the Republican Party while 38 percent had a positive view of the Democrats. Democratic candidates have remained competitive in many key races because so many voters find the GOP alternative unpalatable.

As NBC's First Read reported, 68 percent of tea party Republicans said that immigration hurts the United States, compared with only 47 percent of non-tea party Republicans and 42 percent of all Americans. And a PRRI/Brookings survey (with which I was involved) found that while 41 percent of tea party members favored identifying and deporting illegal immigrants, only 26 percent of non-tea party Republicans preferred this option.

The Republican congressional leadership thus continues to be caught between an aspiration to appeal to middle-ground voters and a fear, reinforced by Eric Cantor's recent loss, that efforts to do so will be punished by the party's right, which plays an outsized role in low-turnout primaries.

In electing Rep. Kevin McCarthy as majority leader over the more conservative Rep. Raul Labrador, House Republicans were actually trying to avoid ideology altogether. To replace Cantor, they picked a pragmatist focused on winning elections and an extrovert known for making friends across factional lines. Policy ambition is not McCarthy's calling card.

 There will be more loud commotion on Tuesday in Mississippi's Republican runoff between the tea party's Chris McDaniel and Sen. Thad Cochran, a six-term incumbent. McDaniel is seen as having the momentum, but his supporters are already attacking Cochran's campaign for encouraging Democrats to participate in the Republican contest. Cochran, a McDaniel email insisted, “is so desperate to keep his seat that he's going to use Democrats to steal the Republican primary.”

So the next stop in the battle for the Republican soul could see either a victory that emboldens the tea party – or a defeat that will be blamed on Democrats and infuriate the movement.  

E.J. Dionne is a columnist for the Washington Post.

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