Longshots tries ‘optimism’ strategy in doom and gloom GOP primary

Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis are betting primary voters, like Leonard Cohen’s song, “want it darker.”

For weeks, Republican presidential primary frontrunners have portrayed current events in increasingly apocalyptic terms, in a fundraising appeal, likening his Thursday indictment to “watching our Republic DIE.” DeSantis, who previously suggested the government impose a “biomedical security state,” said “the militarization of federal law enforcement poses a deadly threat to a free society.”

At a VFW room in Laconia, NH earlier this month, Florida’s governor repeatedly asked if anyone was “satisfied” with the state of the economy, the federal bureaucracy or “a open southern border where drugs flow and kill millions of Americans”.

It’s dark and catastrophic all the time — a strategy perfectly in line with public polls that suggest the Republican electorate’s exorbitant dissatisfaction with the way things are going in the country with a Democrat in the White House.

Yet as the two primary juggernauts battle it out for the vote in anger — and with their own rivalry growing increasingly hostile — some of their competitors are trying to gain a foothold in the primary by carving out a less dystopian path for themselves.

“There’s still a desire among some Republicans for a more upbeat, more upbeat, Reagan-esque message,” said Whit Ayres, a longtime Republican pollster. “It seems to have been overshadowed by the angry population, but we will test it in this presidential election.”

Last week, former Vice President Mike Pence portrayed himself in his campaign ad as a sunnier Reagan Republican, appealing to “our nature’s best angels” and saying he is not “convinced that our country is as divided as our politics” – despite a mob trying to kill him on January 6, 2021.

Doug Burgum, the near-anonymous governor of North Dakota, spoke about small town values ​​and “fighting to unite the country” at his campaign launch.

“I’m a businessman, a strategic man – I wouldn’t have gotten into this race if I didn’t think there was a way,” Burgum told POLITICO in an interview. He added, “It’s not just one lane, there’s a huge lane to go out and get our message across.”

And then there’s South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, who said conservatives are “hungry for hope” and that the country is “a more perfect union today than we were yesterday or yesterday.” last year or the last decade”.

The most optimistic appeal to voters is a long-running strategy in a party where Trump has honed grievance politics and GOP voters have soured on the direction of the country, with only about 1 in 10 Republicans seeing that the things are going in the right direction. And appealing to anger, according to a number of studies, is one of the most effective short-term motivators for getting voters to go to the polls.

“Make no mistake, the Republican Party since Trump has gone into a guttural, angry mood and it continues in the politics of revenge and resentment,” said Matthew Bartlett, the Republican operative who has been involved in multiple campaigns. presidential.

With few other options, a handful of their rivals are betting that a more optimistic and happy warrior approach will offer at least a modicum of contrast as they attempt to progress down the field.

This is a strategy that will not inflame the base. As Pence often says, “I’m a conservative, but I’m not in a bad mood about it.” Scott, too, despite criticizing many of President Joe Biden’s and the Democratic Party’s policies, still isn’t saying all is lost.

“America continues to move in the right direction,” he said on Fox News Monday night. “We continue to call on our best angels.”

His strategy there is less tested by the polls and more consistent with his existing mark in the Senate, where Scott is known as an affable member who has neither fully embraced nor loudly rejected Trump. Scott’s team bet that half of the Republican Party wants a Trump-like fighter — but there’s another half of conservatives who don’t demand that approach to politics.

“He’s going to be authentic with himself. He’s going to be who he is,” an adviser to Scott said. “He won’t be someone he’s not.”

According to hive mind Scott, there’s evidence his positive message is resonating with voters, but gradually. Scott has yet to see any polling increases since his May 22 campaign kick-off event, remaining in the single digits. A Morning Consult poll released last week found that in the week since its launch, 38% of Republican primary voters said they heard something positive about Scott – not an overwhelming number – compared to 7% who heard something negative.

An “upbeat, positive message hasn’t been shared in so long,” Scott recently said on midday talk show The View, and “as long as it’s steeped in conservatism and you have a backbone, people are interested in engaging in conversation.”

Whether it works is another question entirely. Barrett Marson, an Arizona-based Republican strategist, said candidates like Scott could ultimately fail to ignite a powder keg base.

“At this particular point, seven months before the vote, the mood of the Republican base right now is just grievance,” Marson said. “A positive fighter like Tim Scott will just have a hard time reaching those voters emotionally, reaching into their hearts.”

But there is at least some part of the GOP that can be open to a less caustic message.

Mitch Daniels, the former Indiana governor who weighed a presidential bid in 2012 and served as Ronald Reagan’s top political adviser, said a Reagan sense of humor is rare in today’s field.

Even though “the city isn’t shining brightly right now,” he suggested candidates “to ‘spice up’ their remarks with a touch of humor, recalling Reagan’s verse: Recessions are when your neighbor loses his job. Depression is when you lose yours. Payback is when Jimmy Carter loses his.

“This year’s crop would be well advised to do so,” he said.

This is the opening they rely on. And according to Vikram Mansharamani, a former Republican Senate candidate from New Hampshire, it taps into something about the country that the most angry candidates miss.

“Why the hell is everyone trying to come to this country if it’s so bad?” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s still a damn good country.”

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