Soon after Republicans suffered a resounding defeat in national elections in 2012, Karen Hughes, the former spokeswoman for President George W. Bush, offered up some blunt advice for how her party could avoid more drubbings going forward: "Set a tone that is more respectful, positive and inclusive," she suggested, eschewing harsh rhetoric about abortion, immigration and other wedge issues that tend to alienate voters.
Two years later, many Republican politicians appear to have taken that message to heart.
In campaigns across the country culminating in Tuesday's elections, top-ticket GOP candidates showed a marked tendency to appropriate traditional Democratic rhetoric on social issues while downplaying -- and in some cases flat-out rewriting -- past support for more conservative stances.
Such shifts tended to place Republican candidates more in line with the views of general-election voters. While this refashioning guarantees no actual alteration of policy, it appears to have worked as an electoral strategy, helping Republicans blunt Democratic attack ads while courting swing voters.
The newfound Republican moderation on social issues also appears to have denied Democratic rivals one potentially crucial asset: extra motivation for liberal Democrats to turn out to the polls, especially women and young voters. In politics, one vote not cast by the opposition counts as much as an affirmative vote for your own side.
Republicans appear to have successfully executed this strategy without alienating decisive numbers of core conservative supporters. According to early exit polls trickling in Tuesday evening, turnout among self-described Republicans and conservatives outpaced turnout among self-described Democrats and liberals.
With polls showing consistent majority support for abortion rights, some of the GOP's highest-profile candidates -- many of whom had previously staked out anti-abortion positions -- campaigned as pro-choice moderates.
Some, like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Colorado gubernatorial candidate Bob Beauprez, described themselves as personally opposed to abortion, yet supporters of the notion that such decisions should be the left to women in consultation with their physicians. Others like Senate candidates Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Cory Gardner of Colorado and Scott Brown of New Hampshire, sought to blunt Democrats' accusations that the GOP is waging a "war on women" by saying they support expanding women's access to contraception.
A decade after Republicans used opposition to same-sex marriage to help win the 2004 presidential election, many GOP candidates stayed silent on the issue, even as the U.S. Supreme Court dropped a pro-same-sex marriage ruling into the middle of the campaign. One top-tier Republican candidate, Massachusetts' gubernatorial hopeful Charlie Baker, released a video promoting his support for same-sex marriage, which has been legal there for a decade. A recent Gallup poll showed 55 percent of the country now supporting laws recognizing same-sex marriage.
On immigration, some conservative grassroots groups sought to mobilize anti-immigrant voters. In states with relatively small Latino populations, GOP candidates promoted familiar border security themes. But in states with much larger Latino populations, leading Republicans like Texas gubernatorial nominee Greg Abbott and Gardner of Colorado portrayed themselves as supporters of immigration reform -- a majority position, according to a recent survey.
Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney used a recent national television appearance to promise that a Republican Senate will pass an immigration reform bill.
Even on some key economic issues -- the typical dividing point between the two parties -- high-profile Republicans borrowed positions traditionally championed by Democrats.
In Alaska and Arkansas, GOP Senate candidates said they supported state ballot measures to raise the minimum wage, while in Illinois, Republican gubernatorial nominee Bruce Rauner disavowed his past opposition to the minimum wage and said he would support an increase.
In Rhode Island, Republican gubernatorial nominee Allan Fung has promoted populist economic themes, slamming Democrat Gina Romano for directing state pension cash to financial firms in anti-Wall Street themes that echo those being aired by Tea Party favorites like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. Fung has also touted his working relationship with organized labor.
In their ad campaigns, Democrats have sought to remind voters of Republicans’ past position on many of these issues. They have blanketed the airwaves with ads making the now-familiar -- and previously successful -- argument the GOP is “too extreme” and waging a so-called war on women. As one former Obama administration summed up Democrats’ argument to BuzzFeed, a Republican win will mean a “Fox News Senate.”
Democrats have portrayed the moderate Republican rhetoric as a gimmick while warning voters not to believe it. They have pointed to confrontations playing out in state legislatures, where Republicans have been gradually restricting abortion rights.
On immigration, the definition of “reform” is subjective, meaning the GOP’s version could ultimately reflect the party’s traditional border-control, anti-amnesty approach. And while some Republicans say they support state minimum wage increases, Republicans in Congress continue to oppose an increase in the federal minimum wage.
The divergence between Republicans’ 2014 election rhetoric and their legislative positions suggests the GOP leadership may be forging something of a detente with its conservative base. In advance of the 2016 election, party operatives seem to be banking on their candidates being able to campaign on more moderate themes without fear of a conservative backlash -- as long as the underlying policies those candidates support do not offend that base.
Whether such a detente can survive the rough-and-tumble of a crowded 2016 Republican presidential primary is hard to discern: There, the jockeying for votes is prone to amplify the differences between the party’s factions, while forcing candidates to pick sides -- a reality that tends to produce extremes.