In 2010 the GOP was buoyed by a wave of conservative support that gained them 63 House seats, 6 Senate seats and multiple governorships and state legislatures. In 2012, conservatism suffered a major setback as fewer conservatives came out to the polls and far more moderates and liberals reelected President Barack Obama.
These are of course a mere two data-points that say only a little. But it is clear the public was far more receptive to a conservative message when a progressive Democratic Party controlled all levers of the federal government. Once Republicans and conservatives took control of the House the way they were viewed by the public shifted. Instead of being able to just rail against leftist policies, conservatives had to find a way to govern. The way they have governed has seen mixed views by the public.
Much of the GOP’s conservative turn can be attributed to the RSC (Republican Study Committee), created in the mid 1970’s, as an answer to the Democrat’s new Progressive Caucus. The RSC has always had few members, partly because most GOP members were mainstream and represented swing districts. But the RSC’s early weakness also had to do with the fact that the Congressional GOP was stuck in the minority from all through the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s. As a result, GOP power was consolidated at the Presidential level. Of course this changed in 1994 and an excellent article on the RSC’s history can be found here.
The RSC’ has a long history of pushing ideology over electoral victories and has played a major part in the GOP’s governing struggles since 2010. Early in 2011, the RSC which represented a solid majority of the freshman Republican class, and the Republican Caucus overall, pushed John Boehner to confront the President and Democrats over the debt. The result was the Debt Ceiling debate of 2011 where the sequester was born. The RSC also quietly promoted many conservative GOP candidates for Senate and House seats in 2012.
When GOP leadership moved even slightly to the left on an issue it was the RSC that pushed back. For leadership this created many issues in trying to appeal to the public and by the time of the election the GOP had a favorable rating among the public of about 35%. Democrats buoyed by a reelected President took 2 new Senate seats and 8 House seats.
Conservatives were not initially moved by public opinion and the election. The result of this was GOP opposition to John Bohener’s last-ditch “Plan B” during the Fiscal Cliff debate. When it was voted down Obama and the Democrats were able to fully push their tax hikes and the result was higher taxes on individuals earning $400K and a couple earning $450K and above. According to the IRS, over 10 years this would generate over $600 billion in revenue.
The GOP loss on the issue prompted leadership and the RSC to finally initiate a cease-fire and map out a legislative strategy at their retreat in Williamsburg, Virginia. The GOP decided to let the sequester kick in with slight modifications and they also decided to have the battle over spending and debt be waged in August/September when the next debt ceiling hike would be needed. So far the public has not softened their view of the GOP according to polls. Yet, many in the party and among conservative circles feel like they have turned the corner. Instead of having internal battles between conservatives, conservatives vs. moderates and conservatives vs. the GOP they are all working together.
The President’s scandals could turn the new GOP/conservative strategy on its head. Conservatives could overreach and see the President as weakened by the time the debt ceiling debate rolls around. They also could repeat the mistakes of the GOP when the impeachment of Clinton was ongoing. For now though, while polls may not show the public views the GOP better, the party and conservatives feel they are in a better position. And for 2014 and beyond that could be half the battle.