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Republican State of the Union rebuttals differed in more than just language

Republicans' dual rebuttals to President Biden's State of the Union differed in language and strategy ahead of the 2024 election.

While Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders went straight for criticism of the "radical left" that included "indoctrinating" children and forcing "woke" culture on Americans in her English language response, Arizona Rep. Juan Ciscomani took a more diplomatic approach — sticking to policy issues and ending on a hopeful note, in Spanish.

The splits on topics, rhetoric and style were meant to target different audiences and had different political goals, said Brendan Steinhauser, a political strategist based in Texas.

Ciscomani, he said, was appealing to what he called "pocketbook issues" — things like jobs and food prices.

"Those are the kinds of issues that independent and swing voters care about, especially swing voters who are Hispanic," he said. "They're looking for someone to focus on those bread-and-butter pocketbook issues more than some of these cultural war things. But again, you're trying to build a party coalition to win a national election."

And Ciscomani's speech appeared to be more optimistic, hopeful, uplifting and personal, with a focus on policy that could appeal to a wider crowd of independents, swing voters, moderate Republicans and business Republicans, according to Steinhauser.

"They're both very compelling, but for totally different reasons," Steinhauser said. "If [Sanders] would have given that speech, people in the Republican base would have absolutely put her in more of a category of traditional Republicans. It's not a bad thing, but I think that what the base wants right now, as they're looking for leaders in the party — they definitely want someone that's going to fight this culture war."

Sanders, who is representing the solidly red state of Arkansas, directed her speech toward the more conservative side of the Republican Party. Ciscomani, who represents the more purple state of Arizona, spoke to an audience even beyond his own party.

"[Sanders'] speech was more targeted to Republicans. And I think her wanting to be seen as a player within the Republican stage," said Jaime Molera, a public affairs consultant in Arizona. "Juan's approach was more to a broader audience ... as opposed to what she was doing ... which I think was more directed at party regulars and why she could be a good leader for them moving forward."

What they left the audience with

Even the speech endings highlighted the differences between the demographics each was trying to win.

President Biden ended his speech saying he believed the country is prospering.

"Because the soul of this nation is strong, because the backbone of this nation is strong, because the people of this nation are strong, the state of the union is strong," he said.

Ciscomani similarly ended on a note of optimism and bipartisanship: "Let's put aside our differences and focus on results to keep this dream alive for future generations. The state of our union is strong because our people are strong. We can overcome any obstacle. Our best days lie ahead."

Rep. Juan Ciscomani, R-Ariz., walks past reporters on the opening day of the 118th Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 3.
Carolyn Kaster / AP
Rep. Juan Ciscomani, R-Ariz., walks past reporters on the opening day of the 118th Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 3.

Sanders, however, offered a different warning.

"America is great because we are free. But today, our freedom is under attack, and the America we love is in danger. President Biden and the Democrats have failed you. It's time for a change," she said.

Pushing ahead toward another election

Ciscomani's state of Arizona and elsewhere will soon become political hotbeds as parties look to win over various voting bases, including Spanish-speaking voters. And each party will begin crafting the talking points to get those moderate, swing voters and voters of color that have proven vital in deciding some election results across the country.

"I think Sarah Huckabee's was fine, but I just wish the Republican Party would use people like Juan more often, too, especially in appealing to Latinos," Molera said, noting that Republicans might mistakenly write off the Hispanic demographic as Democratic.

During the 2022 midterms, some races saw Hispanic voters trend toward Republicans, and in others, they helped Democrats secure bigger margins.

Hispanic voters have begun trending Republican in recent elections, especially in Florida and Texas. But in states like Arizona, Nevada and Colorado, Hispanic voters still tended to lean toward Democratic candidates.

Ciscomani himself also narrowly won his own race — earning just over 5,000 more votes in the swing state's election.

"I think the people that ran for both the U.S. Senate and the governor's races [in Arizona], they did that divisiveness and they didn't even try," Molera said, adding that there are conservative values that do appeal to Latino-identifying voters. "I think that's something that could be hugely beneficial to Republicans, especially if we want to win anything again in Arizona."

But both strategists agree that both broad-stroke approaches are needed in order to make gains in the upcoming election cycle.

"What national Republican leaders are trying to do is coalesce this disparate group of people and get them to move in the same direction toward a common foe, which is the Democratic Party and Joe Biden," Steinhauser said. "And that may or may not be enough in 2024."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.
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