CHARLOTTE, N.C.—Republican National Committee members gathered here to re-elect Chairman Reince Priebus for a second term. But by week's end, that vote seemed secondary to the question of the party's long-term survival.
After three months of denial, anger, despair and depression over the results of a bruising national election that gave Democrats an edge in Congress and kept President Barack Obama in the White House, Republicans know they must adapt if they are to move forward.
They acknowledge that it's time for a serious gut check (or, as Haley Barbour put it in November, a "proctology exam").
Whatever bodily metaphor you choose, the fact remains that the election so jolted and shocked the party that it is taking real steps to change.
And change it will! As soon as it figures out how.
While Republicans in Virginia and other battleground states launched an effort this week to alter Electoral College rules so that votes are doled out proportionately—which would likely give the GOP at least a short-term edge—GOP leaders here discussed their party's own shortcomings and sought areas of internal improvement.
Almost every conversation in the bar of the Charlotte Westin Hotel this week involved a discussion about what the party must do to win the next elections. Floating through the air is a desire to recapture glorious days of the past, a challenge made difficult by a country that refuses to stand still. Demographics are changing, minorities are growing in political influence and views on social issues like gay marriage are drifting rapidly leftward. Something's got to give.
Bring in the Bobs
Enter the RNC's five-person "Growth and Opportunity" committee, an ethnically diverse cadre of political veterans and RNC members analyzing what the party must to do avoid another 2012-like drubbing. (Think of them as The Bobs from "Office Space," but with American flag lapel pins.)
The group includes Henry Barbour, a Mississippi committeeman and Haley Barbour's nephew; former George W. Bush White House press secretary Ari Fleischer; Florida strategist Sally Bradshaw; South Carolina committeeman Glenn McCall and Puerto Rico committeewoman Zori Fonalledas. They will submit a detailed report in March that looks back on the 2012 election and forward to 2014 and 2016.
"You're going to see a very renewed aggressive effort by this party to put on a different face," Bradshaw said on Thursday. "We've got to find a way to take our message to more people and get more votes. It's not a particularly complicated formula. We got beat; we have to change what we're doing."
The report is a work in progress, and only part of it will be made public, but The Bobs delivered an update on their findings on Thursday to the RNC members.
First, they said Republicans must work on improving their tone when taking their ideas to the American people. For example, when discussing immigration, maybe presidential candidates should avoid phrases like "self-deportation" (Mitt Romney) and "anchor babies" (Michele Bachmann).
Henry Barbour said some in the party can appear "hostile" to certain constituencies with the rhetoric they use. The party must increase communication training for candidates, he said.
"There are certainly too many times when we've had candidates who have come across as hostile, and that's not really helpful when you're trying to win elections," Barbour said.
Robert Bennett, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, was even more blunt.
"We need to understand that we can't come off as a bunch of angry white men," he said.
Minority 'engagement' a top priority
Making an honest effort to engage minorities was above anything else the main, yet unofficial, focus of party leaders this week.
On Thursday, committee members took part in a closed-door panel discussion on minority engagement. Edward Cousar, a black committeeman from South Carolina who sat on the panel, said white Republicans struggle in part because they spend too much time with other white Republicans. They have little idea how to speak or interact in a way that appears welcoming to outsiders who come from different ethnic and social backgrounds.
"People get set in their ways, and maybe they don't have a diverse set of friends and they say things," Cousar told Yahoo News in an interview before the panel. "It's not that they're being racist. They just don't know."
Cousar, who leads the Black Republican Political Action Committee, pointed to past Republican efforts to suppress early voting—"shameful," he said—and Romney's writing off of 47 percent of the country as unwinnable.
"I always thought Romney had better policies," Cousar, who is the only Republican in his family, said, comparing Romney and Obama. "But he was a horrible messenger."
In November, Obama won more than 70 percent of the Hispanic vote and more than 95 percent of black voters supported him. Single women also fled the Republican party on Election Day, with about two-thirds supporting the Democrat. It's a serious problem for Republicans, one they admit will take a lot of time to overcome.
"It's not going to happen overnight," said McCall, a black member of the study group. "But it can be done, and we're going to make that effort."
No more witches
Part of that effort relies heavily on recruiting quality candidates, many attendees said.
For the past four years, Republicans have faced a series of disappointing setbacks after mediocre candidates—often tea party favorites—have gone on to lose very winnable elections.
They include Todd "Legitimate Rape" Akin, who lost a Missouri Senate race last year and forced Romney and other Republicans on the defensive over women's issues.
In 2010, Nevada's Sharron "Second Amendment Remedies" Angle and Delaware's Christine "I'm Not A Witch" O'Donnell lost Senate races Republicans had been expected to win.
The party hopes to take steps to avoid such catastrophes.
Republicans say if that means supporting a moderate candidate who can actually win over a hardline conservative who doesn't stand a chance, so be it. (You may have noticed that among the names that make up The Bobs, there isn't anyone who might be considered a "tea party leader.")
"If we're not nominating candidates that can win in the general election, what business are we in?" Barbour said. "We are in the business of winning elections."
There is one thing, however, that no one—not the committee members, elected officials or even The Bobs—seem interested in addressing, and that's whether core Republican ideas need to change.
Most here said they don't.
"The conservative message sells," said Saul Anuzis, the former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party. "We're on the right side of history, on the right side of the issues. We just haven't done a very good job on articulating the issues."
Anuzis' analysis is pretty universal in Republican circles. They see the true cause of their problems as merely poor presentations of otherwise good ideas.
That means a tricky rhetorical sleight of hand.
Don't believe women should have access to an abortion if they are raped or victims of incest? Try not to talk about it. Think the 47 percent of Americans who don't pay federal income taxes are "takers"? Please don't quote Ayn Rand in your stump speech. Support laws banning gay couples from legal rights guaranteed to straight couples? Keep it in the closet. And remember, when in doubt, pivot and talk about economic growth.
Barbour admitted his committee wasn't brought in to debate or change those policy ideas. Their task, he said, is to put Republicans on a path to win election—not a squishy exercise in lazy pontificating or a dorm room bull session about the proper role of government.
It's data driven.
It's going to hurt some feelings.
And most of all, it's damn serious.
"We did get whipped in the presidential election," Barbour said. "That's not something we take lightly."