Having watched several promising campaigns collapse in 2012 after candidates made catastrophic mistakes, national Republican leaders are leaving nothing to chance as they prepare for this year's midterm elections.
Having watched several promising campaigns collapse in 2012 after candidates made catastrophic mistakes, national Republican leaders are leaving nothing to chance as they prepare for this year’s midterm elections.
They’re summoning contenders– especially those who seem inexperienced, unpredictable or inclined to provocative opinions — to first-of-a-kind training at the GOP’s Senate campaign headquarters to learn, in part, what not to say and how not to say it.
It’s a delicate intervention, but one deemed essential by officials smarting from campaign debacles that cost the GOP winnable races, including Senate seats in Missouri and Indiana, last time.
“Hopefully, everyone has paid attention to the huge blunders that were made,” said Ari Fleischer, former top aide to President George W. Bush who helped draft a post-election analysis for the Republican National Committee after the 2012 campaign. “You can’t buy enough ads to cover up a candidate who is flawed.”
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The two-day sessions, which feature top experts in communications and public policy, have brought in more than a dozen Senate and about 50 House candidates. The GOP’s hopes for winning a Senate majority this year depend on picking up six seats, some by candidates who are less seasoned.
In addition to the policy briefings and campaign advice that both parties have long offered, the candidates are counseled specifically on navigating trouble-prone issues related to women.
Front-running Republican Senate candidates Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana self-destructed in 2012 after making controversial comments about pregnancy and abortion. Akin asserted that a woman’s body was equipped to fight off pregnancy in cases of “legitimate rape.” Mourdock said that in pregnancies, “Even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, it is something God intended to happen.”
The perils were illustrated again last week when former GOP presidential contender Mike Huckabee accused Democrats of portraying women as unable to “control their libido or reproductive systems” without government help, which set off another cycle of explaining and defending.
In the communications lessons with GOP candidates, “I’m very tough on them,” said instructor Todd Harris, a former adviser to Sen. John McCain and Marco Rubio. “Nobody’s cried. But some of them, when they’re done, I’ll tell them ‘That was crap.'”
Since the GOP’s disappointing 2012 showing, party attention has focused on the mistakes made. In addition to the Indiana and Missouri meltdowns and presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s defeat, campaign problems contributed to unforeseen Senate losses in North Dakota and Montana.
Conservative fundraisers like Karl Rove have vowed full-scale efforts to recruit better contenders and sidetrack problematic ones.
But less noticed has been the party’s stepped-up initiative to fix candidates rather than replace them.
The sessions hammer away at “message discipline,” with mock interviews, press conferences and post-game video analysis.
“All Democrats want to do is talk about the war on women, so it would be malpractice for us not to address it,” said senior National Republican Senate Committee spokesman Kevin McLaughlin.
McLaughlin declined to say specifically how candidates are advised to handle thorny questions related to sex and reproduction, such as whether rape victims should be able to have abortions.
“We gave examples of good ways to say things and – shall we say – less effective ways to communicate them,” he said.
Terri Lynn Land, a leading Republican candidate for Senate in Michigan, was among those urged to attend the sessions. Despite winning two terms as Michigan’s secretary of state, she was criticized for poor debate performance in her unsuccessful 2010 GOP race for governor.
Others who have attended include Mark Jacobs, a Senate candidate in Iowa who has extensive business experience but none in public office, and Matt Whitaker, who lost his only statewide race in Iowa, for treasurer.
Doug Truax, a Republican businessman running for the Senate in Illinois, said the sessions are very helpful for a novice.
“The candidate school went deeper on policy, allowing me to supplement my current thinking, then capped it off with media training to hone my delivery,” he said in an emailed statement.
But attending was an awkward issue for some candidates, and few agreed to talk about it publicly.
“We’re just not going to put Shane on the record on this,” said Bill Novotny, campaign manager for Nebraska Senate candidate Shane Osborn.
Officials with the National Republican Senatorial Committee, who are co-sponsoring the sessions with their House GOP counterparts, said the 2012 gaffes don’t dominate the sessions, which generally emphasize careful preparation. The Democratic Party and progressive groups also hold campaign boot camps for Democratic candidates, who have had their own problems.
But the intensified GOP training now includes discussion of the 2013 Massachusetts Senate race in which Republican Gabriel Gomez stumbled through a convoluted explanation of his abortion position.
Democratic campaign officials say the problem isn’t how some Republican candidates explain their views.
“It’s not a mistake when Republican candidates say things that are part of Republicans’ vision for this country,” said Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Lon Johnson.
Republican Rob Portman of Ohio, vice chairman of the NRSC, said the tough sessions are necessary, even if humbling.
“I think we have wandered a little bit recently,” he said. “We’ve got to refocus on winning.”