GOP Plots Path Back to Power

Beth Reinhard
National Journal

CHARLOTTE -- With President Obama’s second inauguration still ringing in their ears, Republican national party leaders are hunkering down for three days of soul-searching.

The presidential election was the toughest, but not the last indignity. Congressional Republicans were backed into a corner during the negotiations to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff and forced to accept tax hikes on the wealthiest Americans. Still seeking leverage, GOP leaders are backing off a showdown over the debt ceiling. At Monday’s swearing-in, President Obama stuck it to the opposition party by laying out an unapologetically liberal agenda for the next four years.

The most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll pegged the Republican Party’s unfavorable rating at 49%, its highest point since 2008. The most obvious hurdle will be improving the party's image among minorities, women and young voters, who comprise a growing share of the electorate and rejected Republican nominee Mitt Romney as out of date and out of touch.

“The challenge will be for us to follow a road map so that the party can begin to put a different face on who we are and what we believe,” said Sally Bradshaw, a Florida-based political consultant who has sought ideas for rebuilding the party from more 100 party leaders and political professionals. “It is very difficult when you’re not the party in power to have a unified message.”

Bradshaw is among five party leaders charged by the Republican National Committee with coming up with a blueprint for the party’s path back to power by March 1. Concerned Republicans can offer input at

Bobby Jindal, the Indian-American governor of Louisiana and a potential presidential contender in 2016, will address the RNC gathering on Thursday night. State capitols are a bulwark for the Republican Party, which touts 30 governors and almost as many state legislatures. “We have to look to the states and what they are doing differently and learn from them,” Bradshaw said. Here in North Carolina, Republican rising star Pat McCrory was elected governor and the GOP expanded its majorities in the state legislature in November.

While some Republicans believe the party’s national problems come down to tone and message, others point to deeper policy prescriptions, like immigration reform, as the way to bridge the gap with the fast-growing Hispanic community. 71 percent of Hispanic voters backed President Obama over Romney, who said he favored “self-deportation” of illegal immigrants. The party is also out of step with women and young voters on issues like abortion and gay marriage.

“We’ve got to engage with a broader cross-section of the electorate,” said Henry Barbour, a Mississippi strategist also co-chairing the Growth and Opportunity Project. “If we’re going to be a party of purists, we’re going to be a very small party. We need to focus on the issues that unite us, and those tend to be fiscal and economic.”

Other challenges are more nuts and bolts. Obama’s cutting-edge operation outgunned the Republican ticket with its capacity to track and motivate potential supporters through technology. Party leaders are also reviewing the number of primary debates (more than 20 in 2012), the way states apportion delegates, and the order and pace of the primary calendar in hope of creating a process that vets candidates without bruising the eventual nominee too badly. Even traditions like the Iowa Straw Poll -- Rep. Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota won in 2012 before she quickly flamed out -- hang in the balance.

The volatile and protracted primary last year drained Mitt Romney’s resources and delayed him from gearing up for the general election.

But the RNC can exert only limited control over the nominating process, as states jockey for influence in national elections. The party’s power has also been fractured by the rise of outside special interest groups that plow millions of dollars into primaries. The fiscally conservative Club for Growth, for example, is threatening to oppose a Senate bid by Rep. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, even though she is widely viewed as a top recruit.

There’s no draft of recommendations from the Growth and Opportunity Project yet, and parts of the final product may stay behind closed doors. “What we are doing essentially is writing a campaign plan, and candidates usually don’t lay out the whole plan,” Barbour said. "For now, we're doing a lot of listening."

CORRECTION: Obama won 71 percent of the national Hispanic vote in the 2012 election, according to exit polls.  An earlier version of the story misstated the number.