CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Republicans are surprisingly unified around the GOP’s need to undergo major overhauls to stay competitive in future elections, despite their internal policy divisions and an ongoing split between their party’s establishment and grass roots.
A gathering of Republican National Committee members in the city where Democrats celebrated President Barack Obama’s renomination exposed a sense of purpose, at least, from national GOP insiders, battleground state operatives and even former Texas Rep. Ron Paul’s supporters, who only joined the party last year and are known more for agitating than strategizing.
James Smack, an RNC committeeman from Nevada who supported Paul over Mitt Romney during the 2012 Republican presidential primary, said the election results shined a spotlight on the GOP’s voter turnout deficiencies and made it clear that change is needed if the party wants win the White House in 2016. For the same reasons, Smack was similarly supportive of the RNC’s intent to establish relationships with minority voters and to improve candidate recruitment and political messaging.
“Yeah, it was closer for Romney vs. Obama in 2012 in Nevada versus what it was in 2008. But close only counts in horseshoes and nuclear weapons,” Smack said in an interview. “The desired results would have been a Romney victory; we didn’t get that. We need to come back to, yes, we’re doing the activity, but how do we measure the effectiveness? And if the effectiveness isn’t there, then we probably should be changing the activity in order to get the result.”
RNC members were in Charlotte to re-elect Reince Priebus as party chairman and conduct other housekeeping business. But with Priebus failing to draw a challenger and all but two of the 168 voting RNC members supporting his bid for a second two-year term, the real focus of the GOP’s winter meeting was to continue exploring what went wrong last November — and more importantly, to learn from it and to move forward.
That effort has taken shape in the form of the five-member “Growth and Opportunity” task force, which was assembled by Priebus.
This group of senior GOP operatives has been charged with autopsying last year’s presidential and downballot campaigns and recommending changes. The report, due in March, is supposed to include specific proposals for addressing several issues that have divided Republicans in the past. That report itself could pose challenges, however, given that the GOP grass roots in recent years have been resistant to direction of any kind from the party establishment.
Among the issues that could sew discord are expected task force recommendations on upgrading candidate recruitment downticket, appealing to female voters, ethnic minorities and other demographics where the GOP has been deficient, and better managing the presidential primary process, including exerting more control over televised debates and who can participate.
As one former GOP official cautioned, people involved in politics are often quite resistant to change.
“It’s one thing to produce the report, it’s another thing to implement it,” this Republican insider said.
The RNC has moved to minimize divisions over the task force and its findings, and it’s trying to engender broad support for its recommendations by moving slowly and talking to a broad range of party officials and grass-roots activists. Task force members include Henry Barbour, nephew of former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour; Sally Bradshaw, a Florida GOP consultant close to former Gov. Jeb Bush; and Ari Fleischer, press secretary under President George W. Bush.
Ohio GOP official David Hopcraft sounded optimistic, saying he expects the party to avoid the internecine squabbles that have become commonplace in recent election cycles. Hopcraft, whose state is regularly at the center of presidential and congressional elections and has a strong GOP establishment, said his sense from talking to Republicans since November is that they have a renewed understanding that establishing conservative governance requires winning elections.
“Nothing gets your attention like a loss,” he said.
What bodes well for the overhaul effort — based conversations with RNC members in Charlotte — was the near-complete absence of complaints that Obama won re-election by illegitimate or unfair means. Rather, Republicans were pointing fingers squarely at themselves. In the immediate aftermath of the 2012 elections, there was talk in some activist circles about voter fraud, a biased media and Obama using government handouts to buy voter support. (Romney suggested as much.)
Priebus mentioned Obama and the Democrats sparingly in his re-election victory speech to RNC members. His toughest words were reserved for RNC members in the room and the GOP in general.
Priebus said the GOP must “articulate” what it stands for in ways that are “modern” and “relatable” to a majority of voters. He called on Republicans to maintain their principles but to also embrace a wholesale overhaul of the GOP’s political strategy and communications rhetoric.
Talking to reporters just before the winter meeting concluded, Priebus used phrases such as “course correction” to emphasize the breadth of change he believes is necessary.
“While we were playing footsie debating each other 22 times, [the Obama campaign was] spending $100 million on technology,” Priebus said. “And if we’re being honest about it, we have not really won a decisive presidential election since 1988. So what are we going to do about it? And that’s the question.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.