Next week could be a defining moment for Sen. Ted Cruz.
The presidential contender’s quest to defund ObamaCare has made him more popular with the base than ever, but that acclaim could fade if he is perceived as retreating from battle — or if the strategy he’s advocated backfires on the GOP.
Strategists said the senator's crusade against ObamaCare will almost certainly be an asset in Republican primaries should he run for president in 2016, though it could also come back to haunt him if he alienates the party establishment.
“The stances he's taking are going to play well in the early primary states,” said Ford O'Connell, a GOP strategist who worked for the McCain-Palin presidential ticket.
O'Connell also predicted the congressional defunding gambit will fail, and repeatedly compared it to Pickett's Charge, one of the bloodiest failed assaults of the Civil War.
"The lesson here is, don't listen to someone whose sole interest is winning the 2016 GOP presidential primary," O'Connell said.
Republicans have mounted another high profile political battle, this time by opposing Tom Perez, President Barack Obama's pick for the Department of Labor Secretary. A committee vote planned for Wednesday afternoon was postponed at the last minute, forcing the vote to be rescheduled for May 16.
Conservatives who oppose Perez cite concerns about his fitness for the office, due in part to accusations levied against him during his time leading the civil rights division in the Justice Department.
But while Republicans may have legitimate reasons to question Perez's nomination, they risk furthering the stereotype that they are anti-Hispanic.
"In a lot of ways we could argue that Perez stands as the antithesis of the views of the GOP, but this has the potential for bad optics – at a time when Republicans need to garner a greater share of the Hispanic vote," says Ford O'Connell, a Republican political strategist who worked on the McCain-Palin campaign in 2008.
O'Connell says Republicans should scrutinize Perez, but not go overboard with their review.
"They should certainly scrutinize his credentials and qualifications and if they don't find a red herring, they should let him proceed to confirmation," he says, adding that the GOP is clearly aware of the potential for bad optics since Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., an African-American, has taken the lead in criticizing Perez.
Fresh off a redemptive win in South Carolina's special election, former Governor Mark Sanford's return to Congress will make him a prominent wild card in an already fractious Republican caucus.
Sanford, whose political career was short-circuited in 2009 by an extramarital affair that marred his last 18 months as governor, earned a political rebirth along with a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday by defeating Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch.
Sanford will arrive in Washington owing little to the Republican Party's leadership, which withheld its support as he battled Colbert Busch in their heavily Republican district. Once he returns to the House seat he held from 1995 to 2001, his independence and staunch fiscal conservatism could give him clout as Congress enters another round of divisive battles over the federal budget.
"There is obviously the potential for Sanford to be a real thorn in (the House Republican) leadership's side," Republican strategist Ford O'Connell said. "He's a free agent; he can do whatever he wants."
Three Tea Party senators are angling for the White House — and could be one another's greatest obstacles to winning the GOP nomination.
Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.), three favorites of the conservative movement, have been quietly jostling for position over policy and stature within the party. Cruz has emerged as one of the foremost critics of the bipartisan immigration reform Rubio is pushing while Paul and Rubio have amassed strikingly similar voting records.
But Cruz’s emergence scrambles that duality, forcing Paul and Rubio to deal with him as well, rather than just choose to help each other when it’s convenient and disagree when it excites their base. “It was like NASCAR — Rand and Rubio were trying to draft behind each other and stay ahead of the pack, and Cruz used that time to raise his name ID with the base. The base just wants that pure candidate and you're going to have to convince them you're the guy,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. “Three is a crowd in the Senate, particularly for what Rubio and Rand are trying to do.”
Sen. Marco Rubio is planning to help introduce an education bill next week.
Conservative groups have turned up the heat on the prominent Florida Republican over his key role in crafting an immigration reform measure.
Republican strategists say that by sinking his teeth into a range of other issues, such as education, Rubio is aiming to stave off criticism from conservatives while laying the broad groundwork for a presidential bid in 2016.
The future of the immigration bill is shaky, GOP operatives say, and Rubio, as the chief Republican spokesman for the bill, can’t afford to have it tank without having at least several other political irons in the fire.
Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist with Civic Forum Strategies who worked on McCain’s presidential bid in 2008, said that Rubio is hoping to use his key role in the immigration debate as a way to draw in more moderates in 2016 if he wins the Republican nomination.
Rubio is also walking “a very fine line” and hoping that he can explain the bill well enough to get conservative support for it, O’Connell said.
“In the 2016 calculation, it could hurt him in the primary among the conservative base, but he’s hoping that if he gets beyond the primary it makes him look like a much more dynamic general election candidate,” said O’Connell.
“Obviously he’s trying to leave himself an out by saying the Senate bill needs more work. But being the chief spokesman for Republicans is a double-edged sword — if it works, you get a lot of kudos; and if it doesn’t, he’s going to catch a lot of hell.”
To paraphrase Homer Simpson, Lauren Howie was the cause of and possibly solution to Republicans' struggle to build a coalition of voters that can again win the White House.
Howie, a 27-year-old African-American from Cleveland, was not thrilled with President Obama's performance in his first term, according to an analysis of the election released this week by the Associated Press. She thought he hadn't delivered on promises to reduce college debt, promote women's rights and address climate change.
And she wouldn't have voted for him except for one thing: She thought even less of his opponent, Mitt Romney. "I got the feeling Mitt Romney couldn't care less about me and my fellow African-Americans," said Howie, an administrative assistant at Case Western Reserve University's medical school who is paying off college debt.
As Conan O’Brien put it last Saturday night, Marco Rubio is the Republicans’ “black guy.”
That is, he’s the charismatic, young, minority senator who is clearly running for president – as then-Sen. Barack Obama was just a few years ago. And if the early polls on 2016 are any guide, Senator Rubio of Florida is a strong contender, if not the strongest, for the Republican nomination.
But there’s a big difference between how Senator Obama ran for president and how Rubio appears to be running.
Rubio is in a wholly different boat. As the only experienced Hispanic senator in the Republican Party – now joined by the more hard-line conservative Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas – Rubio is a natural ambassador to a voting bloc that Republicans desperately need to attract. And after GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s poor performance with Latino voters (just 27 percent), Rubio understands that enacting comprehensive immigration reform can help his party overcome Latinos’ resistance to the Republican brand, analysts say.
In response, Rubio has positioned himself as one of the lead Republicans on the issue. He probably had no choice.
“Usually you stay away from having a long vote record or taking on a serious initiative, because having a long vote record can be hazardous to your presidential health,” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “But Rubio recognized that if the Republican Party is to win the White House in 2016, it will need more than the white vote.”
The Tea Party movement is preparing to use ObamaCare's rollout to catapult itself back into political power.
Tea Party leaders have been watching closely as President Obama and other prominent Democrats predict glitches in the law's implementation. Conservative activists see these concessions as a major boon for Tea Party candidates in 2014 as Republicans seek to hold the House and take the Senate.
"The Tea Party is certainly dying as a movement," said Ford O'Connell, a GOP strategist. "They definitely need some new life breathed into them, and [implementation] is the issue to do that. They need to make it work. If they can't hack it in 2014, they're done."
A poll this week found that four in 10 people aren't aware that the Affordable Care Act is still on the books. Other surveys have founds that false claims about "death panels" and benefits for undocumented workers still hold sway.
O'Connell said these misunderstandings will be profitable for conservatives, particularly given the emotional nature of debates about healthcare."Sometimes winning elections isn't about the moveable middle but about targeting the easily misled," he said. "What people don't know is a very powerful campaign tool."
The Republican establishment breathed a sigh of relief when Boston businessman Gabriel Gomez won Tuesday's GOP primary in the Massachusetts special election Senate race, believing he represents the party's best chance at an unlikely pick-up in liberal Massachusetts.
Gomez, a Hispanic former Navy SEAL investment firm executive, has the type of outsider credibility and centrist leanings the GOP hopes will play well against 18-term Rep. Edward Markey, the Democratic nominee.
Here are six things that Gomez needs to pull off an upset:
2. Outside Republican groups must spend heavily in the race.
Republicans agree that Gomez won’t have a chance if outside groups don’t invest heavily in the race, but a number of strategists for groups that typically get involved say they’re holding their fire until polling on the race comes in.
While Republicans agree Gomez is a strong candidate, the groups are wary of investing in a lost cause, and are looking for evidence that the climate in Massachusetts could be favorable for a Republican.
But that early money could make all the difference as Gomez seeks to define himself and Markey in the early days of the campaign. Republican strategist Ford O’Connell said an early investment could cause Democrats to spend money on what they consider to be a safe seat.
“Spending now to find out if you can get a boost is better than waiting to see if the boost can come around. Frontloading the money, and forcing Democrats to spend there, might be a little bit smarter,” he said.
President Obama's relationship with Republican leaders in Congress has hit a new low.
The president's personal jab at Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell over the weekend came as his relationship with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has soured over the last year.
“I’m not so sure the president was joking; to some extent, I think it was a fair assessment when [Obama said], ‘You have a drink with Mitch McConnell, no you.' It’s gotten to that point, Capitol Hill is a pretty entrenched place and neither the president nor congressional Republicans have the power to prevail on any issue,” GOP strategist Ford O’Connell said.