Once 2016 finally rolls around, Republican candidates have to negotiate two very different electorates in the primary (white Republicans) and the general election (black Democrats) that often share one commonality: economic struggle. A number of the Republicans that are likely to try to win both of those races — Sen. Rand Paul, Rep. Paul Ryan, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Santorum — have begun to articulate what they see as the thread between those two populations.
The Paul Ryan strategy
A listening tour on poverty that focuses on black Americans.
There are at least two ways to look at Paul Ryan's recent excursions into understanding how poverty works and affects (mostly black) Americans. One way of looking at it is that Ryan, the long-time head of the House budget committee, experienced a (perhaps literal) come-to-Jesus moment on the need to improve the government's systems for addressing poverty and has been touring the country to talk to the actual poor. Another way of looking at it is that Ryan would like to be president, and is working to bolster his shaky credentials with black voters and on economic issues. This is the "well-drawn caricature of himself as a wolf in bro’s clothing," as BuzzFeed's McKay Coppins put it in his lengthy new profile of Ryan — the guy who wants to slash spending, but while showing the world his trademark concerned frown.
Coppins casts Ryan in the first light: A devout Catholic who is trying to balance the Republican drive to reduce spending with new strategies for helping the poor and the formerly incarcerated. To that end, Coppins revisits a lot of the same arguments he made in December, in a piece titled, "Paul Ryan Finds God," following Ryan as the congressman talked to a group at Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church in Indianapolis. "Ryan," Coppins writes, "is doing something rather unprecedented for a Republican: He is spending unchoreographed time with actual poor people."
New York's Jonathan Chait — as Coppins notes and as we have discussed in the past — is much more skeptical of the plan, and falls firmly into the second camp above. Ryan, a politician, is certainly happy to receive positive press that shows him trying to help the black community; if he runs for president, the Coppins piece will be mentioned. Chait has documented Ryan's outreach in much harsher terms, suggesting that Ryan is looking for sympathetic cover on policies aimed at gutting spending on social programs.
Before House Republicans released their budget earlier this year, Ryan published a report criticizing federal spending on poverty programs. When the budget didn't include any of Ryan's long-promised proposals for fighting poverty, Chait mocked Ryan soundly. Coppins indicates that Ryan will release those proposals on Wednesday, giving Americans a chance to see just how effective the listening tour has been.
The Rick Santorum Strategy
Refocus the Republican party on the needs of poor Republicans.
There's an obvious split within the Republican Party between the wealthy business interests that drive many of the campaign contributions and policy initiatives and the blue-collar Republicans that come out to vote. "These days, the GOP tone and agenda are set by a voting bloc of mostly white, blue-collar workers whose sensibilities skew more toward NASCAR than golf," as National Journal's Alex Roarty put it last week.
In his new book, coming out on Monday, Rick Santorum is making an explicit play for that bloc. The Washington Examiner got a copy of the book, Blue Collar Conservatives: Recommitting to an America That Works, and outlined its argument. "Do Republicans really care less about the person at the bottom of the ladder than Democrats do? To be painfully honest, I would have to say in some ways yes," Santorum writes, dismissing the idea of additional income tax cuts in favor of corporate tax cuts aimed, in his estimation, at creating jobs.
Santorum offered a preview of this argument at the CPAC conference earlier this year. He criticized the 2012 focus on job creators, arguing that Republicans should appeal to people "who don't value just money." A strategy focused on less wealthy Americans, as Santorum obviously knows, could play as well in a general election as in a Republican primary. (It's the social conservatism — also explicit in his book — that could make a November campaign much rockier.)
The Rand Paul strategy
Reach out directly to black voters as a sign of a changing GOP.
Rand Paul appeared at Harvard over the weekend, his second visit to a liberal college campus in a month. It's a clear attempt to reengage the younger, libertarian voters that supported his father, Rep. Ron Paul, in his two presidential bids.
He was blunt, as Mediaite reports. "You go to a Republican event and it’s all white people," he said, "not because we’re excluding anybody, but because we just haven’t done a good enough job encouraging people to come into our party."
Rand Paul has put an emphasis on that encouragement. He's been deliberate in advocating changes to sentencing laws, which could help reduce the number of blacks and Latinos serving prison time. He didn't support the Senate's compromise immigration bill last year, but has backed changes to immigration laws. He's also been pushing for new investment tools in Detroit, a not-too-subtle effort to build bridges to black voters.
Paul has also not shied away from a more populist message, as MSNBC's Benjy Sarlin reports. "We cannot be the party of fat cats, rich people, and Wall Street," he told a gathering in New Hampshire. "We can’t be the party of the plutocrats and the rich people!" His solution, like Santorum's (and most other Republicans'): cut taxes.
The Mike Huckabee strategy
Huckabee is — as much as a one-time presidential contender can be — something of a dark horse at this point. He runs at the top of polls and is campaigning for Republicans, but it's not clear how likely he is to run in 2016.
In December, he offered a glimpse of what any campaign might look like in a radio interview with Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody. "It scares some Republicans quite frankly," Huckabee said of his economic agenda. "They'll say, 'He's a populist!' What they actually mean by that is, you know, he actually knows some people that are poor."
With almost two years until the 2016 primary, it's hard to fault this as a strategy, if that's what it is: I, Mike Huckabee, will be a populist, fighting for poor Americans. It's a theme that seems inevitable for any Republican candidate hoping to win that election. Well, almost any candidate.