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GOP focusing on “brand management”

It's Just Politics with Zoe Clark and Rick Pluta

This week onIt’s Just Politics: a couple of interesting events of which we’re taking note. The first item out of D.C., where the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this week quickly and quietly approved an increase to the nation’s debt ceiling. No big arguments. No conditions. Which is an anomaly. Raising the debt ceiling has become a battle over the nation’s fiscal soul.

It’s hard to forget about the fight that occurred last fall as the rollout of the federal health care website was failing spectacularly, a missed opportunity for Republicans as hardly anyone was paying attention to the website rollout (in the beginning, at least). Instead, the budget fight and the 16-days of shutdown headlines commanded most of the attention.

However, Republicans seem to have learned their lesson. Because these days, the game is brand management.The GOP now wants the political-punditry spotlight shining strictly on any goofs and glitches in the ramping up of Obamacare - not on their political fights in D.C.

This brings us to our second interesting event this week, tomorrow in Lansing, when the Michigan Republican Party State Committee will choose a new Republican National Committeewoman to replace Terri Lynn Land.

Land, former Michigan Secretary of State, is on track to become the Republican’s U.S. Senate candidate and seems to be enjoying some pretty good early poll numbers. Land was elected to the RNC two years ago at a Republican convention that was taken over by the Tea Party.

It was during this same convention that conservative firebrand Dave Agema - he of the stridently anti-gay, anti-Muslim segment of the Republican coalition - was elected Republican National Committeeman of Michigan. It became clear that that association was becoming a problematic distraction as Land’s campaign was getting off the ground and showing some promise. So, now, the Michigan Republican Party’s executive committee has a decision to make in replacing her.

And, while values are at stake, this decision is as much about brand-management as anything else.

There are three contenders in tomorrow’s race. First, Ronna Romney McDaniel, niece of Mitt Romney, granddaughter of former Michigan Governor George Romney and daughter of former Republican National Committeewoman, Ronna Romney. State GOP leaders have been looking for an opportunity to put Romney McDaniel into a more public role.(She emerged as a talented surrogate in Michigan during her uncle’s presidential campaign.) Sandra Kahn (Republican state Senate majority leader Randy Richardville’s aunt) and Mary Helen Sears are also in the running.

All three say they are comfortable with Agema as their counterpart. But, certainly, not all Republicans feel the same way. Just last month, Michigan Republican Party Chairman Bobby Schostak called on Agema to quit. He and other party leaders don’t want another flash-point from Michigan on the RNC.

Which, again, comes down to brand management. And, if you think that doesn’t matter, consider this: we know candidates are important. They always have been, they always will be. They bring personality, charisma, and a face to a campaign. But, what political scientists know is that candidates are important but party brand can be even more important. That’s particularly true on the down ballot - Congressional seats and state Representative, for example - where candidates are not nearly as well known as a politician running for president or governor. So, positive party identification and party perception is key to winning elections.

University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato, who also runs the Crystal Ball newsletter, and his crew have developed a system for tracking how party perception yields congressional seats on Election Day. And it’s been a pretty accurate predictor. On a generic Republican versus Democrat ballot, every additional point in the survey for the party not in the White House is worth another 1.7 congressional seats. So, a 10-point advantage yields 17 Congressional seats.

It’s worth noting however, the prediction doesn’t really work until the September survey comes in. Which makes sense. In elections, September and October are deal-closing time, when voters start mentally committing to their choices. So, much like always in politics, we just have to wait.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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