In trouble, GOP will gather to decide what next

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 22, 2013 

— The Republican Party is in turmoil, confused about its future and disliked by huge numbers of voters.

Not only did Republicans lose a presidential election they’d long regarded as winnable, the party lost seats in Congress as well as support among women, blacks and Hispanics. And it wound up perceived as a home for some of America’s most doctrinaire and incendiary – some would say intolerant – politicians.

That’s the landscape that confronts the Grand Old Party as the Republican National Committee gathers this week in Charlotte, N.C., for the first time since the November election.

The formal part of the Wednesday-Friday session is expected to go smoothly, as Chairman Reince Priebus is likely to win re-election despite a challenge from Maine National Committeeman Mark Willis.

The nuts-and-bolts types who make up the committee like Priebus, who’s credited with improving fundraising and grass-roots organizing.

“He’s made sure we have the means to be competitive,” said New Hampshire Republican Chairman Wayne MacDonald. “It’s just hard when you’re up against an incumbent president with a billion dollars in the bank.”

The real drama will be the introspection, as the people who run the party try to figure out how to remove the stains of 2012. It won’t be easy.

They’re going to discuss findings of the Growth and Opportunity Project, headed by a group of party VIPs Priebus tapped after the election to study long-term strategy in eight areas, including the party’s ground game, message, fundraising and “lessons learned from Democratic tactics.”

Republican troubles, though, go beyond November’s losses. An NBC-Wall Street Journal poll last week found that 49 percent had a negative view of the party.

“We’ve allowed ourselves to be tagged as elitist and out of touch,” said former party Chairman Michael Steele. “You’ve got to be willing to talk to people who don’t look like you.”

Willis is basing his challenge on what he calls a failure to listen to grass-roots voters. For instance, he said, “we want serious spending cuts, not token cuts. But we feel like they’re shutting our voice out.”

The party is also sharply split into distinct camps.

“The divide is not only ideological but cultural, the Romney elitists versus the tea party Republicans,” said Craig Shirley, an author and conservative activist.

Romney was the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, but the conservatives who dominate the party never warmed to his patrician ways or forgot his centrist history. He then stirred an uproar with his post-election assertion that President Barack Obama had provided “gifts” to black, Hispanic and young voters.

The tea party also has become a burden in some circles. The grass-roots movement that exploded in 2010 and helped elected dozens of Republicans to Congress seemed to fade last year, hurt by candidates who proved too extreme to win among diverse constituencies.

Party stalwarts are convinced that Republicans can bounce back quickly. They still maintain the biggest House of Representatives majority since World War II, and last November’s win in North Carolina gave the party control of 30 governor’s offices.

They’re convinced that issues will trend their way, particularly as the national debate focuses on fiscal issues and guns.

“You’re going to see a hugely energized electorate that is extremely hostile to the notion of bigger government,” predicted David Carney, who was President George H.W. Bush’s White House political director.

He argued that once people see taxes going up and Washington doing little to confront the national debt, Republicans will be motivated. And, other Republicans maintain, Americans will warm to congressional Republicans.

Because they control the House, they have a bully pulpit to air their issues, setting the agenda for hearings and debate.

Shirley likened the mood to that of the late 1970s, when a host of issues energized the conservative base, such as opposition to the Panama Canal treaty and support for tax cuts.

Beyond Washington, Republicans think they have a roster of stars waiting to be embraced, many with crossover appeal. Among them:

– Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who shot back at Romney’s dig that whole blocs of voters were bought off by “gifts,” declaring, “I don’t think that represents where we are as a party and where we’re going as a party.”

– New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whose leadership after superstorm Sandy helped boost his popularity in a Democratic-leaning state.

– Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who’s leading an effort to overhaul the nation’s immigration system.

But lurking behind all the promise is still a party that, as Shirley put it, is “a mess,” losing a foothold in huge swaths of the country.

“We seem to only care about a handful of states,” Steele said.

It’s also a party saddled with what former Secretary of State Colin Powell called the “dark vein of intolerance.” Romney won 7 percent of the black vote and 27 percent of the Hispanic vote, and two Senate candidates in winnable states were toppled because of what many saw as insensitive remarks about rape.

“Hispanics say they don’t feel welcome, and it’s our fault,” said Tom Morrissey, the Arizona Republican chairman. “We’ll do a better job. It’s going to be gradual, and it’s going to be constant.”

Among women, Romney lost to Obama by 11 percentage points. In New Hampshire, Democratic women scored a clean sweep of major offices, winning both House seats and the governorship. Both the state’s senators are women; Jeanne Shaheen is a Democrat, Kelly Ayotte is a Republican.

“We are not intolerant,” said MacDonald. “But we need to do a better job of getting our message out and talking with key demographic groups.”

Email: dlightman@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @lightmandavid

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