5 key insights into the GOP's political strategy

"How do you sound more moderate without becoming more moderate?"

Rep. Eric Cantor
(Image credit: (Alex Wong/Getty Images))

We had a fascinating discussion on the Political Wire podcast about GOP legislative and political strategy in 2014 and beyond with Washington Post political reporter Robert Costa, who has arguably followed Republicans on Capitol Hill more closely than any other reporter.

Here are five takeaways:

1. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's strategy ahead of the midterm elections: Sound more moderate without being too moderate. Cantor, a Virginia Republican, is trying to expand his party's majority in the House this November and "to do that he has to sound a little more centrist" in how he guides the party, Costa said. That may be particularly important because after last October's government shutdown, the GOP took a beating in the polls and became increasingly viewed by the public as ideologically rigid. At the same time, Cantor can't come off as too moderate, or he'll rankle staunch conservatives and Tea Party members in his caucus. Cantor, in trying to strike the right balance, has sought to soften his tone on issues like immigration and health research funding without drastically straying from conservative principles, Costa said. "That's the Cantor dilemma, that's the Cantor challenge: How do you sound more moderate without becoming more moderate?" Cantor has suggested the need for at least some small steps on immigration reform, and has promoted a pediatric research measure.

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2. Seeing their Senate-control hopes rising, Republicans are trying to play it safe legislatively ahead of November. Despite Cantor's new center-right overtures, don't expect the GOP to put out huge or innovative policy proposals this year, Costa said. Republicans may not bring anything on immigration reform to the House floor this year, even though Cantor himself has suggested the need for a DREAM Act-like measure. Meanwhile, any ObamaCare alternatives that Republicans do bring up will include safe, non-sweeping provisions involving health-insurance purchases across state lines or health savings accounts. "There's a sense in Republican ranks that because the math is looking better, play it safe in Congress — just focus on an anti-White House, pro-jobs, pro-growth message, and see where the chips fall."

3. The Tea Party's influence in Congress has decreased a fair amount. The 2013 government shutdown, brought on with the help of Tea Party Republicans like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), inflicted significant damage on the GOP's political brand. The party has since seen its 2014 midterm prospects brighten, but Republicans may be wary of squandering this advantage by taking political risks like the ones they took last fall. "Because the shutdown caused so much political pain, inside Congress I think the political capital of Cruz and his allies in the House has slightly diminished over the past few months," Costa said. But one place to find the Tea Party-versus-establishment battle alive and well is outside Congress, particularly in primaries where Tea Party-oriented and small-government outside groups like Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks are spending money and going on the air.

4. Don't rule out Scott Brown in New Hampshire. Although opponents of the GOP former senator from Massachusetts may be quick to call him a carpetbagger, he's still worth watching in the Granite State, Costa argued. Brown is politically talented, and his blue-collar roots and centrist stances could appeal in New Hampshire, which is far more moderate than the state that Brown once represented in the Senate. "I think Scott Brown presents the New Hampshire GOP, even though he's from out of state, with a very electable, high-name-ID candidate," Costa said. The main problem for Brown: Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) remains popular in the state: "She's no pushover."

5. Sen. Rand Paul has a legitimate shot to get the level of Republican support that long eluded his father — and widen the GOP's tent. "He's trying not only to expand the GOP's reach, but you see Rand Paul signaling to the Republican establishment that he wants to be taken seriously, that he can expand the party's coalition, and that he can build a network beyond what they may dismiss as his old crew," Costa said. The Kentucky Republican's relatively libertarian views on certain social issues, namely marijuana, may be more in touch with views of the rising Republican electorate, as well as with U.S. public opinion more generally. And his fiscally conservative and states' rights-oriented views should resonate with most other Republicans, Costa said. Paul's main dilemma: "How does he show that he's a national force and not get marginalized at the same time? I think there's going to be a real push against him on foreign policy." Paul is trying to walk a fine line between non-interventionism and the hawkishness of the GOP's old guard.

Listen to the whole conversation here:

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