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First Thoughts: The GOP Still Faces an Empathy Gap

GOP still faces an empathy gap… And it’s still trying to fix it… Senate holds vote on unemployment-insurance benefits at 10:30 am ET, and right now supporters are one vote shy of the 60 needed to clear the procedural hurdle… Obama to speak after the vote at 11:40 am… RNC rolls out new radio ads hitting Dems on health care… NYT on Liz Cheney’s miscalculation… And Gerlach becomes 10th House member to announce he/she’s not seeking re-election. 

*** The GOP still faces an empathy gap: After losing the 2012 presidential election, after that 47% comment, and after a majority of voters (according to the exit polls) said that Mitt Romney’s policies favored the rich, Republicans acknowledged that they needed to close the empathy gap with Democrats. “The Republican Party must be the champion of those who seek to climb the economic ladder of life,” the RNC declared in its post-election autopsy. But the GOP didn’t come close to meeting that goal in 2013. For the first time ever, House Republicans decided to split food stamps (which benefit the poor) from agriculture subsidies (which benefit well-off farmers) in the farm bill. In addition, many of the party’s governors and GOP state legislators opposed expanding Medicaid to provide health insurance to low-income Americans. And in the first few days of 2014, Senate Republicans could filibuster a measure this morning at 10:30 am ET -- co-sponsored by a colleague, Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) -- that would extend unemployment benefits for three months. Per NBC’s Kasie Hunt, four Republicans (Heller, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Kelly Ayotte) have signaled they will vote on the motion to proceed on the legislation, but that’s one vote shy of the 60 needed to clear the procedural hurdle. 

Larry Downing / Reuters

The Capitol Dome is seen on Capitol Hill, Nov. 9, 2012. To the left is the U.S. House of Representatives.

*** And it’s still trying to fix it: President Obama is scheduled to deliver remarks on unemployment benefits after this vote -- at 11:40 am -- and don’t be surprised if he uses that as an opportunity to chastise the GOP (if the legislation is filibustered). He might re-use this line from the economic speech he delivered a month ago in DC. “If Republicans have concrete plans that will actually reduce inequality, build the middle class, provide more ladders of opportunity to the poor, let’s hear them.” But as the Washington Post reports, Republicans are trying to respond to Obama’s challenge. Tomorrow, marking the 50th anniversary of LBJ’s “War on Poverty,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) will give a speech on income mobility and the American Dream. (Rubio previewed his remarks in a video he released over the weekend.) Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), who was Romney’s running mate in 2012, is also planning to address poverty. And as NBC’s Mike O’Brien wrote last month, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) recently traveled to Detroit to propose “Economic Freedom Zones” that could turn around Motown and other troubled urban areas. Former George W. Bush aide Peter Wehner recently argued that the Republican Party had an obligation to close the empathy gap. “I want to underscore the fact that focusing attention on those living in the shadows of American society is the responsibility of a great political party; and how to create greater opportunity and social mobility for those stuck on the bottom rungs of society should be part of any conservative governing vision." 

*** But will the action meet the rhetoric? The question for the GOP, however, is whether this Rubio/Ryan/Paul activity is more than words, especially as Democrats press to extend unemployment benefits and raise the minimum wage. Because right now, the GOP has a perception problem here with American voters. Per last month’s NBC/WSJ poll -- which was brutal for Democrats after all the problems associated with HealthCare.Gov -- the GOP trailed the Democratic Party by a whopping 28 points (45%-17%) on which party does a better job “showing compassion and concern for people.” And here’s one more political point here: As we wrote yesterday, the 2014 midterms could very well come down to whether the focus is on health care (which favors the GOP) or on income inequality (which favors the Democrats). Today, the main political focus is on income inequality. Here’s a release from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee: “Tom Cotton Has Nothing But Disdain For Unemployed Workers, Opposes Extending Unemployment Insurance for Arkansans Looking for Work.” 

*** RNC rolls out new radio ads hitting Dems on health care: But Republicans are still working to keep health care in the news. Today, the RNC is launching radio ads targeting key 2014 Democrats -- like Sens. Mark Begich (D-AK), Mark Pryor (D-AR), and Mary Landrieu (D-LA) -- over the canceled health-care plans under the Affordable Care Act. Here’s one of the ads: “President Obama and Sen. Landrieu said if you like your insurance plan you can keep it under ObamaCare. They lied to you. Big time. PolitiFact called that the ‘lie of the year.’… 2014 is your chance to hold Sen. Landrieu accountable.” RNC Chair Reince Priebus holds a conference call at 10:00 am ET to unveil these new radio ads. *** UPDATE *** DNC spokesman Michael Czin responded to the RNC strategy this way: "Today, more Americans have better, more affordable health care than before thanks to the Affordable Care Act. The GOP shut down the government trying to take it all away. Now they’re standing in the way of unemployment insurance and an increase in the minimum wage. If that’s the agenda they want to campaign on, they can go right ahead."

*** Liz Cheney’s miscalculation: The New York Times’ Martin writes that while Liz Cheney cited “serious health issues” in her family as the reason for her exit from Wyoming’s Senate race, her problems went well beyond that. “She ran in a state that she had not lived in for decades rather than in her longtime home state, Virginia, she targeted a genial and well-liked incumbent with no glaring ideological vulnerabilities, and she carried the banner of a hawkish foreign policy at a moment when a more restrained approach to national security is ascendant in the Republican Party. Further, she prompted an ugly and public split with her lesbian sister, Mary, by declaring her opposition to same-sex marriage — and was nevertheless attacked with television ads by a third-party conservative group over gay rights. Most of all, though, Ms. Cheney miscalculated the degree to which her father’s popularity among conservatives was transferable to her own race.”

*** Gerlach becomes 10th House retirement: As NBC's Frank Thorp and Mike O’Brien reported yesterday, Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-PA) announced he would NOT seek re-election in 2014, giving Democrats a chance to win his seat this year. But demonstrating the power of redistricting, it's not as strong of a chance as it once was. In 2008, President Obama won 53% of the vote in Gerlach's district in the Philly 'burbs. But in 2012 -- after the GOP-controlled redistricting -- Romney got 51% of the vote in the district vs. Obama's 48%. The potential good news here for Democrats is that vulnerable Gov. Tom Corbett (R) will represent the GOP at the top of the ticket in 2014. A Dec. 2013 Quinnipiac poll found Corbett's approval rating at just 36%. Per Thorp, 10 House members have announced they aren't seeking re-election in 2014 -- nine Republicans and one Democrat. Here's the percentage of the vote Obama won in each in 2012: 

Spencher Bachus (R-AL): Obama 25%
Michele Bachmann (R-MN): Obama 41%
John Campbell (R-CA): Obama 43%
Howard Coble (R-NC): Obama 41%
Jim Gerlach (R-PA): Obama 48%
Tim Griffin (R-AR): Obama 43%
Tom Latham (R-IA): Obama 51%
Jim Matheson (D-UT): Obama 30%
Jon Runyan (R-NJ): Obama 52%
Frank Wolf (R-VA): Obama 49%

So when you include the special congressional election in FL-13 -- where Obama got 50% of the vote in 2012 -- there are five open GOP-held congressional seats where Obama won at least 48% of the vote in '12. That's compared with the one almost-certain GOP pick-up opportunity in Utah's open seat.

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