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Roll Call

RNC Looks to Refurbish Ailing State Parties, Build Infrastructure

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Priebus is expected to discuss the GOP’s organizational plan Friday during his speech at the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting.

The Republican National Committee is assembled in Charlotte this week in the midst of an ongoing post-election review that will help guide its strategy for strengthening the party’s campaign infrastructure and broadening its appeal.

Along with a renewed focus on attracting minorities, another priority likely to emerge from the review is a reinvestment in some of the party’s downtrodden state affiliations that exhibited their deficiencies in the glaring lights of the 2012 election cycle. Without the benefit of the well-funded political operation of a sitting president, some state Republican parties struggled to supply the vital infrastructure and leadership that candidates at all levels rely on.

“We are in the process of developing training programs and outreach efforts to help support efforts in states through webinars, in person training, data and fundraising assistance,” RNC Press Secretary Kirsten Kukowski said. “This will be a major focus for the RNC as we complete the review and learn from what went wrong and what went right the past cycle.”

Just in the West alone, Republicans struggled at the congressional and presidential level in a handful of states the party once expected to compete in. The reasons varied from state to state but included both organizational issues and the party’s toxic brand among Hispanic voters.

RNC Chairman Reince Priebus is expected to touch on both topics Friday in his speech at the RNC winter meeting, according to excerpts of his remarks obtained by CQ Roll Call. The organizational plan includes refurbishing the GOP into a modern party with trained operatives and activists in communities across the country — one that can compete with Democrats.

“As a party, we must recognize that we live in an era of permanent politics. We must stop living nominee-to-nominee, campaign to campaign,” Priebus is expected to say. “As we saw this election, our opponent benefited from a multi-year head-start. Now is the time to begin to develop a permanent, national field infrastructure. This is the opportunity to get a head-start of our own.”

That national plan will rely in part on the strength of the state parties. At this juncture in the RNC review, it remains unclear which ones will receive the abundance of the committee’s focus.

In an interview with CQ Roll Call last month, Priebus, who is expected to be re-elected to a second two-year term on Friday, identified just one of the state parties high on his assistance target list: Nevada.

The struggles of the GOP in the Silver State were unique, highlighted by regional struggles between local parties and the takeover by supporters of former Texas Rep. Ron Paul. The dysfunction and infighting played out on the floor of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., where the two factions engaged in heated exchanges.

The national party was so distrustful of the state GOP that Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, the RNC and the National Republican Senatorial Committee set up avenues to funnel money and infrastructure to Nevada while circumventing the state party. Republican Sen. Dean Heller squeaked out a victory over Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley, but Romney lost by 6 points to President Barack Obama in a state with among the highest levels of unemployment and home foreclosures.

Republican consultant Ryan Erwin, who is a former executive director of both the California and Nevada Republican parties, said that in an age of third-party groups collecting and spending vast amounts of money, state parties should focus on what they can uniquely provide.

While it may be able to do more, Erwin said, the role of the state party “will always include registration, voter ID, turnout, data, volunteer recruitment and being a consistent brand that — although brands have highs and lows — hopefully is symbolic of accountability and stability.”

That was not the case last year in California, where the state party found itself hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt and unable to properly assist congressional candidates in the newest hotbed of competition at the House level. Half of the party’s net loss of eight seats nationally came from California.

Jim Brulte, a former GOP leader in both the California Assembly and Senate, is running for state party chairman and looking to turn things around. He has projected it could take six years to fully do that, including implementing a finance infrastructure necessary for a viable party — something that doesn’t currently exist.

The party has come to rely on elected officials and candidates to raise money for it, rather than the other way around, he said in an interview.

“The role of the party is to be the nuts and bolts that help candidates win elections,” Brulte said. “It’s very important that we have a vibrant, strong, operational, excellent state party.”

Elsewhere in the region, GOP post-election soul-searching in Colorado and New Mexico — both of which Obama won — wavered between tactical problems and the party’s inability to attract Hispanic voters, according to media reports in November.

In Colorado, Democrats control both houses of the state General Assembly, and only one Republican governor has been elected since 1970. (Bill Owens, who served two terms.) Thought to be a swing state, Colorado saw a 9-point victory for Obama in 2008, followed by a 5-point win last year, much to the surprise of the state GOP, which had rented out space at Sports Authority Field at Mile High to celebrate on election night.

While running for his post in November, New Mexico GOP Chairman John Billingsley, who served as vice chairman last cycle, criticized the party’s focus on a multimillion-dollar media campaign in lieu of a well-financed grass-roots campaign. Obama scored another double-digit win in the state, and the GOP lost its bid to pick up an open Senate seat and failed to compete in the state’s most competitive House district.

“As a longtime conservative and Republican activist, I believe our party must return to the lead role in grass-roots candidate recruitment, messaging and fundraising,” Billingsley wrote in an op-ed in the Albuquerque Journal. “For too long, the party has adopted a top-down approach when it comes to communicating our message and values to voters.”

Priebus is expected to push RNC members on Friday to cease viewing the political landscape as a series of battleground states and rather build the party into a national brand that can compete in the states that have slipped off the national radar.

“Just three presidents ago, in ’88, Republicans won easily in places like California, Illinois, Connecticut and Delaware,” Priebus is expected to say. “If we make the commitment, we can win again.”

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