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GOP Forced to Pivot on Taxes

Polls Say Issue Losing Power

Senate Republicans are likely to engage in a more serious message makeover than they previously thought following a private strategy session Tuesday where they reviewed new polling data showing tax cuts are no longer priority No. 1 with key independent voters.

The news, GOP Senators acknowledged afterward, served as an important wake-up call as the party undergoes its massive internal image overhaul. The theme of lower taxes has been a cornerstone of the Republican platform for more than a decade, and one that they have continued to keep in their arsenal leading up to and even following the party’s devastating Congressional losses in the 2006 elections.

“It’s a classic example of, ‘you can’t live in the past,’” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said. “The American people are beyond ‘what have you done for me lately.’ It’s about ‘what can you do for me tomorrow.’”

Led by Senate GOP Conference Chairman Jon Kyl (Ariz.), Republicans have been engaging in a soul-searching exercise over their message and platform since the beginning of the year. The effort involves using public opinion polling, focus groups and Member-to-Member discussions to determine how the GOP can reconnect with the public and set a course to reclaim the Congressional majority.

Republicans already have started to put some of their findings to use, including during this week’s debate on the state of the troop “surge” in Iraq in which they cautioned against a rush to judgment. GOP Senators have largely articulated a view that Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, should be listened to and that Congress ultimately should heed his recommendations to ensure a successful outcome in the region.

Tuesday’s strategy meeting, which mirrors a similar Senate session in July, involved key presentations from GOP pollster (and Roll Call Contributing Writer) David Winston and strategist Richard Thau, who outlined what messages are working for Republicans, and what are not. The findings, according to sources familiar with the session, showed Senators that Americans are far more focused on key domestic reforms like health care reform and the level of government spending rather than on previously enacted GOP tax reductions.

Any talk about taxes should be focused on the present or the future, the data showed, rather than on a period the public no longer remembers or is focused on. The findings also noted that voters are not for tax hikes, especially when they believe Washington continues to “waste the tax money” it already collects.

“Our discussion of tax cuts has had its effect, in a sense,” Kyl explained.

Republican Senate sources said the latest information provides some of the most concrete evidence yet that Senators need to break from the old messages of the Bush administration, which spearheaded the then-GOP majority’s tax reductions of 2001 and 2003. It also shows Republicans relied too easily on tax cuts as the answer to every domestic problem, they said.

“That kind of messaging no longer works on its own,” explained one senior GOP Senate aide. “We’ve worn out the message.”

Republican Senators insisted afterward that they aren’t ditching calls for tax reductions altogether, nor do they plan to shelve support for extending the 2001 and 2003 reductions when they come up for renewal in more than two years. But Senators said they realize they cannot use the tax cuts as simply a Band-Aid for every problem, and if they propose them, they must do a better job explaining why they are the right answer.

“There’s nothing wrong with lower taxes,” said Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), also general chairman of the Republican National Committee. “But it’s about how we speak to the message. It’s about how we speak about [economic] anxieties and concerns.”

Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said Senators have come to the realization they must do things differently going forward, but now are undergoing difficult process of developing that new message and figuring out how best to deliver it. These are not minor modifications, he emphasized.

“We still have to make the move and we have to make a big move to get us on offense,” Lott said.

While the recent feedback took many Senators aback, they said they haven’t lost the support of their conservative base, which has consistently supported previous positions on taxes. Still, if Republicans are to gain ground with swing voters and independents — whom they lost in 2006 — Senators said Tuesday they have to modernize and come up with new solutions to voters’ top priorities.

“Every election is about the future,” Thune said. “If we fail to recognize that, we’re not going to win.”

In many ways, the timing of the Republican Senators’ messaging efforts couldn’t be more critical.

In recent days, the political landscape turned even more dire with GOP Sens. John Warner (Va.) and Chuck Hagel (Neb.) announcing plans to retire at the end of 2008, forcing the Republican leadership to play defense in two states where they otherwise may have been worry-free.

What’s more, Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) is leaving his seat after two terms, and Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) is planning to exit by the end of September. Already, Republicans enter the cycle with 22 seats up for grabs, compared to the Democrats’ 12.

“We’ve got to focus on doing things right,” Sen. John Ensign (Nev.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Tuesday. “We got to focus on fundraising, recruiting and spending money well. We have to be true to our principles and we have to make sure we set a positive agenda.”

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