As members of the Republican National Committee met in Hollywood to debate how to reverse their party’s recent losses in presidential campaigns, they narrowly defeated an effort by a Virginia committeeman to undo all the changes to party rules made during the 2012 Republican convention.
The rules fight played out Wednesday beneath a broader debate at the Republicans’ spring gathering over how the party can reshape its message to win over more female and minority voters, who favored President Obama over Republican nominee Mitt Romney during the 2012 election. GOP leaders held their meeting in liberal California in a symbolic gesture to show their interest in campaigning in communities that have spurned Republicans.
Central to the discussion is the GOP’s new Growth & Opportunity Project report, which prescribed a series of controversial changes in messaging, presidential primary mechanics and data gathering before the next presidential cycle.
But the rules debate that stretched for most of the afternoon Wednesday illustrated deeper fissures within the party, in this case between members who object to the centralization of power within the RNC leadership and members who say pragmatic changes are needed to avoid a prolonged primary fight in 2016 that could damage the Republican nominee.
Virginia Committeeman Morton Blackwell led an effort to undo the rule changes pushed through by Romney operatives at last year’s convention in Tampa, Fla., that were intended to streamline the primary process and give greater authority to the RNC chairman over hiring and budget decisions.
Among the changes was a provision to do away with so-called “beauty contests” that were not binding, and others that ensured that state delegates voted in a manner that reflected the ballots cast by voters. In 2012, supporters of Rep. Ron Paul of Texas took advantage of arcane local and state party rules to take over state delegations—creating a last-minute scramble in the delegate count that elongated the nominating process.
In some states, voters’ decisions at the polls were not reflected in the delegates sent to the national convention to select the nominee. For example, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum narrowly won the Iowa caucuses over Romney. However, when the state’s delegates were chosen at a state party convention six months later, the bulk were Paul loyalists.
But Blackwell and other members called the Tampa changes a “power grab” that siphoned authority away from state parties and grass-roots activists. The move to reverse the Tampa rules also united some of the most conservative members with newer libertarian members who supported Paul in 2012 and were outraged by the rule changes. Texas Republican Party Chairman Steve Munisteri argued during Wednesday’s debate that the rollback of the Tampa rules would send a “strong statement that this party isn’t top-down, it’s bottom-up.”
Though the Blackwell amendment to reverse all the Tampa changes was defeated, 28 to 25, in the rules committee, he and his allies won a partial victory Wednesday with the rolling back of a provision that would have required delegates to be bound by the vote count in their state’s primary or caucus.
Opponents of that move, including Mississippi Committeeman Henry Barbour, argued that it was antithetical to the party’s interests to have “hundreds of thousands of voters go vote, thinking their vote matters, only to be undone by several hundred people at a state convention.”
“Having beauty pageants is not helping us,” Barbour said. “Campaigns are having to run twice, and that isn’t in our party’s interest. And I don’t think it’s a smart way to grow the party.”
But supporters of the move made a state’s rights argument, a bedrock principle for most Republicans – that it was inappropriate for a centralized power, in this case the leadership of the RNC, to dictate how state parties run their primaries or caucuses.
Iowa Committeeman Steve Scheffler supported Texas Gov. Rick Perry in the caucuses, but defended the process that allowed the bulk of his state’s delegates to be Paul backers (even though it did not reflect the caucus results).
“People may have wanted to see different results, but I still believe states ought to have autonomy to choose delegates as they wish,” he said. “I wish no disrespect to the Santorum campaign or the Romney campaign in Iowa, but they didn’t do their job.”
The proposal to allow the states to continue to set their delegate rules was approved by the rules committee on a 31-20 vote. However, its prospects of success in a vote by the full RNC membership on Friday are questionable, since a 75% vote is mandated.
The Republican meeting runs through Saturday.