Last week house minority Leader John Boehner renewed his party's commitment to repealing health-care reform. But the GOP's Senate candidates aren't echoing the national message machine—at least not in North Carolina, Indiana, and Ohio, the states where primary season kicks off next month. Tar Heel incumbent Richard Burr admitted recently that "total repeal" is implausible, and Indiana Republican contender John Hostettler has framed the law in similar terms. Ohio's Rob Portman, who "prayed" that Obamacare would not pass, has yet to sign the Club for Growth's popular "repeal it" pledge. (And the GOP nominee in Illinois, Mark Kirk, now says that rather than fight reform, his job is to explain how it will affect voters.)
The rhetoric gap is still relatively narrow, but it's likely to grow as the general election approaches. National party leaders will continue to rally the base. Their state counterparts, however, won't need reminders that all politics is local, especially if a race is close (as these races are). The more wiggle room they leave in the primaries, the thinking goes, the freer they will be to court swing voters this fall—and the easier it will be to back away from repeal if and when Americans start enjoying the benefits of the new law. Perhaps with that thought in mind, some of the same Republican Senate leaders who've pledged repeal nationally have begun to quietly condone local moderation: Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, recently advised candidates to "test the winds." The only question now is whether the GOP's mixed signals will reach their intended audiences—or cancel each other out.