There's been a great deal of hand-wringing about the GOP "brand" since the 2012 election, and rightly so: it can have a powerful influence on candidate performance at the ballot box.
But the brand's impact is not the same for everyone. It turns out that some Republican candidates are a lot more dependent on the party label than others.
Karl Rove, in his book Courage and Consequence, notes that, "The higher the office, the more likely the candidates will be seen for who they really are." Even remotely competitive campaigns for president, governor, and senator draw substantially greater attention from the news media and voters than local offices like school boards and city councils. The candidates for these higher offices have in turn many more opportunities to define themselves independent of party affiliation.
While some Republicans rightly complain about media bias, the truth is that in many cases, by Election Day, most voters have a pretty good idea of who top of the ticket candidates really are -- for better or for worse. The rule of thumb is this: the closer a candidate is to the top of the ticket, the better their opportunity to define themselves through their own words and actions.
The reverse is also true: candidates for lower offices draw less attention, raise far less money, and have fewer opportunities to define just who they are. Voters receive less information about them and are left to turn to other sources for signals about how a candidate would govern if placed into office.
One of those signals is party affiliation, and if it's placed on the ballot next to the candidate's name, particularly for less visible offices, it carries a disproportionate impact on voter decision-making.
In states like New York where local offices are partisan complete with primaries and party labels on the ballot, this makes the GOP brand critically important for Republican candidates for local offices. In California, where candidates for local offices are not identified by party affiliation on the ballot, the impact of the brand is diminished slightly.
For less visible statewide offices, the brand's impact is enormous.
California, a Democratic state by enrollment since 1934, has held eight elections for the top post of governor since 1982, and Republicans won in five of them, giving the party a strong 62.5 percent success rate.
The post of Lt. Governor in the Golden State is nearly invisible. In one famous spat, Gov. Gray Davis (D) even took away the Capitol parking space assigned to Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante when Bustamante became a candidate for Davis' job in the 2003 recall that ultimately led to the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger (R, kinda).
Lt. Governor contenders in California receive little media exposure and campaigns for the office spend a fraction of gubernatorial candidates. Voters are left with less information, and turn to the party label for greater guidance. The result: in the 7 elections for Lt. Governor since 1982, California Republicans have won none of them. GOP success rate: 0 percent.
Same state, same voters, same election, offices that appear directly adjacent to one another on the ballot. Completely different results. Top of the ticket candidates have the opportunity to chart their own destiny, while their downticket running mates are more heavily dependent on the party brand.
In California, Democrats outnumber Republicans by 2.7 million voters, or 43.9 to 28.9 percent, making strengthening the Republican label a critical task. With 38 percent of the state's residents now Latinos, and another 13 percent Asians, the Republican brand cannot be significantly improved unless members of these two groups find new appeal in the GOP.
In the presidential battleground states of New Mexico and Nevada, both with large Latino populations, the numbers are almost as stark. In New Mexico Republicans are outnumbered by 199K voters, 47 percent to 31 percent. In Nevada, Democrats hold an edge of 113K voters, 42 percent to 33 percent.
Nationally, Republicans concerned with having a competitive Electoral College map in 2016 cannot ignore this problem. Locally, Republicans in states where Democrats are in the majority have an even stronger interest in strengthening the brand. Unfortunately, they don't control it.
A common myth, particularly among state-level reporters, is that the brand is controlled by party leaders in the state. Yet, the amount of media attention given to each party's elected officials in Washington, D.C. dwarfs that devoted to in-state politicos. Political hacks may be paying careful attention to the news coming from state capitols each night, but to voters, the parties are defined nationally.
Well respected analyst Charlie Cook notes that following the 2010 redistricting, the average House district held by a Republican went from 73 to 75 percent white, while during the previous decade the national electorate dropped from 67 to 64 percent white. "[W]hile the country continues to grow more racially diverse, the average Republican district continues to get even whiter," notes Cook.
In other words, House Republicans seen daily on television defining the party brand increasingly hail from districts where winning the support of Latinos, Asians and African Americans is not particularly important for their own re-election prospects. For many of them, the GOP's challenges among diverse voter groups is someone else's problem.
Yet, the way in which they define the GOP brand has a powerful effect on other Republicans seeking office, especially candidates for downticket offices, and nowhere with greater consequences than in the Southwest, where Latinos make up the greatest portion of the electorate.
Republican elected officials in Washington must recognize the role they play in defining their party, and choose their policy positions, language, and actions accordingly, whether their personal political futures rest on it or not. The alternative is to continue lamenting an Electoral College that becomes increasingly hostile to Republicans as the nation's electorate diversifies.
Ron Nehring served as Chairman of the California Republican Party from 2007 to 2011.