After the crushing presidential loss in November, national Republican leaders offered a blunt message in a postelection report: Unless the party appealed to women, minorities and voters with divergent views, there was little hope of reversing their national losing streak.
The first test of the party’s will to reshape its image comes Wednesday as the 168 members of the Republican National Committee — who represent some of the party’s most conservative voices — meet in Hollywood for a three-day retreat to discuss their messaging problems and calendar changes that RNC Chairman Reince Priebus hopes will position them to win in 2016.
Guiding the discussion is the March “Growth and Opportunity Project” report, which laid out how the party had alienated minorities and women with its rhetoric, how its deficiencies in voter contact put its candidates at a disadvantage and how the failure to connect with fast-growing Latino and Asian American communities led those voters to favor President Obama over GOP nominee Mitt Romney by overwhelming ratios.
With a symbolic visit to blue California, and an announcement Tuesday of new RNC hires who will try to forge ties with Asian American voters, Priebus is attempting to show his party’s commitment to campaign in areas that have been hostile to the GOP.
“The Republican Party has done a lousy job reaching out to communities across the country, but I am committed to changing that,” he said. “This process starts in places like Los Angeles, where we need to be in every community, not just for a couple of months, but a lasting presence.”
California Committeeman Shawn Steel called the decision to hold the meeting in Hollywood “bold” and a “visceral statement” about how serious the party was about rethinking its course.
“The great educator is the pain of a very close election, and that has really led to lot of soul searching,” Steel said.
Republicans will gather Thursday in closed meetings and workshops meant to push the party’s presence in Democratic-leaning communities. But such efforts may be overshadowed by a battle Wednesday over rules that prompted a fight at the national convention last year.
In the Tampa, Fla., gathering, Romney operatives led a push to change the rules in a way that they said would strengthen the party’s position in 2016 — measures that bolstered the chairman’s authority over hiring and budget decisions, and moves aimed at guaranteeing that a state’s delegates supported the candidate that voters backed in their primary or caucus. The latter was seen as an attempt to avoid a repeat of what occurred in 2012, when Texas Rep. Ron Paul’s supporters took advantage of arcane local and state party rules to take over several state delegations.
Some RNC members have insisted that the rules enacted in Tampa were a “power grab” that would favor establishment candidates like Romney over insurgent contenders like Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. The first battle of this week will be at the rules committee Wednesday, where Virginia Committeeman Morton Blackwell will attempt to reverse all the rule changes made at the 2012 convention.
In an interview, Blackwell said the rule changes made it more “difficult for power to flow from the bottom up.”
“We need to have a procedure where power grabs are more difficult,” he said.
Several dozen conservative leaders — including those with disparate interests like Family Research Council President Tony Perkins and Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist — signed a letter supporting Blackwell’s proposed rule changes, arguing that consolidating power “not only violates our political principles, it will alienate the very people who have been the most loyal foot soldiers in support of Republican candidates.” Committee members were bombarded by hundreds of emails about the proposals.
Those who support the moves say that change is necessary to make sure that the delegates who attend conventions and pick the nominee reflect voters’ wishes.
“When people go to vote in the primary they need to know that their vote counts,” said Mississippi Committeeman Henry Barbour, a rules committee member. “Elections matter and we need to enforce and make certain that the voters’ will is enforced.”
At workshops throughout the week, the RNC members will debate other controversial recommendations: the prospect of regional primaries that would compress the campaign calendar, a reduction in the number of primary debates and an effort to move the party convention to early summer so that the nominee can tap general-elections funds earlier.
Supporters of these moves say that the drawn-out 2012 primary meant Romney entered the general election bruised and battered in voters’ eyes. Opponents say the compressed calendar would favor establishment candidates, who have the resources to air television ads and compete in many states at once.
J. Hogan Gidley, a GOP operative who has advised insurgent candidates including Santorum and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, said he saw valid arguments on both sides but feared that changing the rules would alienate the party’s die-hard activists.
“As we’re in the middle of the great ‘GOP rebrand,’ appearing as through we’re stifling any vote or trying to circumvent the process will come across very poorly to a large proportion of GOP voters,” Gidley said.
He also said the focus on the process was a diversion from the party’s true needs — a solid nominee, a strong ground game and an understanding of the electorate.
“It wasn’t the process that failed, it was a fatally flawed nominee,” he said.
Party leaders hope to use the week to smooth out some of those disagreements and begin rebuilding.
“No one is going to agree with 100% of the recommendations,” said Sally Bradshaw, a coauthor of the GOP postelection report and a longtime advisor to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. “But there is a real hunger to start winning national elections again.”