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Republicans debate message, battle bad messengers

April 9, 2013

ATLANTA (AP) — National Republican leaders made waves recently with a dim view of the party’s future if it fails to expand its core support beyond white males and social conservatives. But weeks after GOP Chairman Reince Priebus unveiled the “Growth and Opportunity Project” report, many party players maintain that the problem often is more about flawed messengers saying the wrong things at the wrong times than the policy positions at issue.

The distinction between policy flaws and communication problems is at the crux of the GOP’s soul-searching as the Republican National Committee convenes this week in Los Angeles for the first time since the report’s release. And it’s a discussion that won’t end anytime soon as conservatives, moderates and pragmatists struggle for control of the GOP megaphone. The dynamic has been highlighted in the weeks since the chairman’s call for outreach, with succession of conservative party figures voicing positions that may alienate the very voters national party leaders want to capture.

Alaska Rep. Don Young was forced to apologize after referring to Hispanic migrant workers as “wetbacks.” Media titan Donald Trump, who flirted with a presidential run in 2012, warned against compromising with President Barack Obama on a citizenship path for anyone already in the country illegally, saying they’ll just become Democratic voters.

Using social media, Republican National Committee member Dave Agema of Michigan redistributed controversial writings that were harshly critical of gay Americans. Agema dug in after many Michigan Republicans called for his resignation.

Days later, the head of the Georgia state party, Sue Everhart, said that if same-sex marriage were “natural,” then gay couples “would have the equipment to have a sexual relationship.” She predicted that if the Supreme Court allows federal employee benefits for gay couples, then individuals who are “straight as an arrow” will enter same-sex unions just for financial perks.

Comments like those have some Republicans reeling.

“It’s extremely, extremely frustrating,” said Gregory Steele, a University of North Carolina senior who leads his state’s college Republican organization. “We want the party to have a serious policy discussion about all of these issues going forward, but it’s hard to get to that point with all of these mistakes.”

Former U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, who retired in January as one of the GOP’s last elected New England moderates, deplored the “intolerance” that she says has driven a “slow and steady erosion of a strong political base.”

“It’s very exclusionary,” Snowe said. “For anyone who isn’t already a Republican, how are they going to be drawn in right now?”

At Log Cabin Republicans, a national group of gay GOP loyalists, Gregory Angelo said the flaps reinforce the image of an inflexible organization. But he also noted Ohio Sen. Rob Portman’s recent embrace of same-sex marriage, and described the party right now as going through “growing pains.”

“We are no longer walking in lock-step on these (social) issues,” he said.

White House losing streaks — like the one Republicans are in nationally — aren’t new. Democrats lost four out of five presidential elections — all by wide margins — from 1972 to 1988, before then-Arkansas Bill Clinton styled himself as a “New Democrat” to win the presidency in 1992 and 1996.

But current trends are foreboding for Republicans. They’ve lost the popular vote in five out of the last six presidential elections. In the last two, Obama has won overwhelming majorities of non-white voters and younger voters, while the anchors of Republican support — older white voters — have become an increasingly smaller share of the electorate. Neither Clinton nor Jimmy Carter ever drew popular vote majorities. Obama has twice cleared 51 percent.

Republicans also lost several winnable Senate races in 2012 after conservative nominees made controversial statements about women and abortion.

Top Republicans both acknowledge the damage such comments have caused and remain careful to defend the party’s official positions as they call for a wider tent.

Republican Governors Association Chairman Bobby Jindal memorably called for the GOP to “stop being the stupid party,” but the potential 2016 presidential candidate from Louisiana said in the same January speech to the RNC, “We do not need to change what we believe ... our principles are timeless.”

Henry Barbour, a Mississippian who helped write the post-election analysis for Priebus, emphasizes that the document shouldn’t be read as a call to change the Republican position on abortion, same-sex marriage or immigration. “In politics, you need to be what you’re for,” he said.

Louisiana Republican Chairman Roger Villere, a conservative who is also national party vice chairman, said, “To be Democrat-light will not win us elections.”

Both Villere and Barbour said fixing the party starts with softening the way that Republicans talk about hot-button issues and emphasizing economic and fiscal policy.

In Georgia, Everhart makes the conundrum clear. She says the party should emphasize the economy, but added: “I don’t like to refer to ‘social issues’ as much as I say that they’re just my beliefs, and I’m going to talk about them,” she said. “If you change your views for one group, you just lose another.”

The one policy position where many Republicans are eager to give ground is immigration, where Senate Republicans are negotiating with Democrats on a comprehensive overhaul. Yet, they couch these policy shifts on immigration as more of a shift in message. Over the weekend, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina went so far as to call Romney’s arch-conservative position on immigration “impractical” and “offensive.” He was referring specifically to Romney urging immigrants in the country illegally to “self-deport.”

Perhaps the strongest call for policy shifts — as opposed to tweaking the message — comes from New England Republicans.

Snowe said that conservatives in Congress, she said, have gone from “original Republican principles (of) fiscal responsibility and economic opportunity” to “eviscerating government.”

“That scares people,” Snowe said.

Steve Duprey, a Republican National Committeeman from New Hampshire, said any meaningful shift on policy issues ultimately must come from Republican presidential candidates. Nominees always have that power, he said, noting that Romney’s march to the right on immigration and other issues helped define the party in 2012.

Snowe agreed, but noted that Democrats’ resurgence in 1992 came only after Clinton had spent years building a centrist anchor for the party through his Democratic Leadership Council.

Duprey offered one more ingredient: “It usually takes a few elections of losing before you figure out that singing to the choir isn’t the way to grow a party.”

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