As House Republicans head to Williamsburg, Va., to talk strategy at their annual retreat, a top Democratic pollster warned Wednesday that voters think the GOP has fallen outside the mainstream on everything from taxes to gay rights.
Pollster Stanley Greenberg, a former adviser to the presidential campaign of Bill Clinton, released a Greenberg Quinlan Rosner poll that found the GOP is losing ground with voters of all stripes.
“The fact is that we have a set of cultural and economic issues, and budget issues, in which [Republicans] are seen as extreme and out of touch,” Mr. Greenberg said.
The survey was released as House Republicans leave the media glare of Washington for two days in the historic town of Williamsburg, where lawmakers will talk about ways to reverse the party’s setbacks.
Republicans lost seats in November’s elections, then saw two major bills — the end-of-year tax increases and this week’s emergency aid for Superstorm Sandy victims — clear the House on the strength of Democratic votes.
In between, House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, had to outlast an attempt to overthrow him as the party’s congressional leader.
Kevin Madden, a GOP strategist who worked on Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign last year, said the retreat gives lawmakers a chance to start laying the groundwork necessary to re-establish the GOP brand.
“Right now, we are caught in a vicious cycle of just reacting to events that happen in two-week increments. Instead, we have to look at our challenge of rebuilding in a much more comprehensive fashion,” Mr. Madden said. “What is the positive impression that we want voters to have two years from now, and then four years from now, when we have another presidential election?”
Mr. Madden said the GOP has drifted away from being the “party of ideas” since 2010, when Republican lawmakers rode an anti-Washington — as opposed to a pro-GOP — electorate into a House majority.
Last year, the party allowed itself to be pigeonholed as just “anti-Obama,” he said.
But recapturing momentum at the ballot box doesn’t mean abandoning basic conservative principles, Mr. Madden said. “Some people try to push the party toward moderating, but I don’t think it is a case of moderating. It is more of a case of modernizing the policies we support and how we talk about them,” he said.
Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist, said the updated party message also must appeal to nontraditional supporters.
“If we look at polling, the Republican brand is in the toilet. Part of that is the ideas are not connecting with what we would call the mainstream of the moderate voters,” Mr. O’Connell said. “What they have to do is stop looking at the past. Ronald Reagan is dead. They have to start shopping for the future. I am the world’s biggest Reagan fan, but it is time to move on. You have to adjust to the times, and once you adjust, you have to set the path forward.”
Mr. O’Connell said the party could learn something from Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who said after the election that when it comes to thorny issues, such as immigration, political rhetoric is as important as policy.
“It’s really hard to get people to listen to you on economic growth, on tax rates, on health care, if they think you want to deport their grandmother,” Mr. Rubio said.
Mr. Greenberg’s poll shows that Republicans have an uphill battle ahead.
Among likely voters, 53 percent of respondents said they approve of the way Mr. Obama is doing his job, while 25 percent said they approve of the way Republicans are running the House.
On the issues of gay rights and tax rates for millionaires and corporations, more than 6 in 10 of the respondents said the Republican Party was “growing extreme and out of touch.”
More than 5 in 10 said the party was missing the mark in dealing with Wall Street regulations and climate change, as well as aid to the poor, immigration and women’s issues.
“There are a very large number of issues where they are seen as extreme,” Mr. Greenberg said in a conference call with reporters. He said the party scores best on how it has dealt with assault weapons and gun violence.
The poll of more than 1,800 voters and likely voters was conducted Jan. 10-14 and had a margin of error of 3.2 percent.
Democrats have had a field day with Republican struggles.
Rep. Sander M. Levin said this week that in his 30-plus years on the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee he has never seen such a radicalization of the Republican conference, and blamed gridlock in Congress on the tension within the party ranks.
“I think that the results of that were shown in the difficulty that the speaker had in the last few weeks,” Mr. Levin said.
He added that he thought “in terms of mainstream America, that the Republican ranks have changed much more dramatically than … the texture of the Democratic caucus.”
Meanwhile, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee also blasted out a tongue-in-cheek email offering suggested retreat agenda items the Republican Party might want to consider to help “explain their extremism and dysfunction to the American people.”
The committee’s recommendations included: stop talking about “legitimate rape,” study Science 101 and practice interacting with women and minority voters.