By JAMES HOHMANN, POLITICO
Last March, a Republican National Committee task force issued a scathing 100-page autopsy on what went wrong for the party in 2012, saying voters see the GOP as a “scary” group of “stuffy old men” who are “out of touch” with an increasingly diverse country. It called on the party to broaden its appeal by doing everything from backing immigration reform to beefing up its digital operations to reining in its drawn-out presidential primary process.
A year later, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus says he’s made major progress on implementing the report’s recommendations. But, as Republicans grow increasingly hopeful they can take back the Senate in this year’s midterms, Priebus cautions that the GOP still isn’t in the shape it should be if it wants to win the White House in 2016 — a national race that will bring out a more youthful, racially diverse electorate.
“We have ‘the tale of two parties’ that we’re contending with,” Priebus told POLITICO in a 40-minute interview in his Capitol Hill office. “We’ve got a midterm party that can’t lose, and we’ve got a presidential party that’s having a hard time winning. So we have to mind the store for 2014, and we’re doing that … but we’re focused on making sure we continue to grow into 2016.”
The 41-year-old Priebus, who is in his fourth year as chairman, is trying to transform the RNC into a more permanent, year-round operation by making atypical off-year investments in the digital realm and in field staff.
He’s especially proud of headway on the technological side. As suggested in last year’s report, the RNC now has a chief technology officer, a chief digital officer and a chief data officer. It opened an office in Silicon Valley and launched an initiative called Para Bellum Labs to experiment with new ideas in a start-up-like environment.
“That’s expensive, but if we’re going to get where [President] Barack Obama was [in 2012], these are the things we have to do,” Priebus said. “We’re spending two or three million dollars more a month than the [Democratic National Committee]. That’s an entirely new world, and it’s an enormous stress, obviously, because now you’re actually paying for the things that you’re talking about.”
The task force consulted with more than 2,600 people in the months after November, when GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s loss to Obama shocked many Republicans convinced they had the White House in their grasp. The panel divided its report into seven sections, covering everything from messaging to fundraising to third-party groups. It even suggested changing the way consultants are paid.
One of Priebus’s top priorities is one of the more sensitive subjects for today’s Republican Party: attracting more ethnic and racial minorities to its ranks. In 2012, for instance, Romney won just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote. Democrats, meanwhile, are eyeing states such as Texas, which they believe can turn from red to at least purple due to the rising number of Hispanic voters.
Priebus has hired hundreds of people across the country to focus on engaging minority groups such as blacks, Hispanics and Asians, through special activities, attending events and advertising. Some of the RNC operatives focus in particular on cultivating relationships with media outlets that cater to minority communities.
“I’m not naïve to think that I’m going to sit here and carpet the world in two years,” Priebus said. “The question is: instead of getting 27 percent of the Hispanic vote, can I get 35? And instead of getting a few percentage points in the African-American community, can I get to 9 or 10?”
“We’re on offense obviously in places like Cleveland and Detroit,” he added. “But we’re also playing defense in states like Texas, with a serious Hispanic engagement program there, not for 2014 or 2016, but potentially down the road.”
Republican strategists acknowledge that the party has not shed its image as being dominated by white men, and some fret privately that just putting bodies into states won’t win over many converts. On this front, the GOP autopsy’s report was firm on one policy issue it said the party cannot ignore, especially if it wants to make headway with Hispanics.
Republicans “must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform,” it said. “If we do not, our party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only.”
GOP lawmakers, however, have been deeply divided on tackling immigration. The Senate passed an immigration bill, but it fell apart in the face of conservative opposition in the House. Many conservative activists see “comprehensive” as a code word for “amnesty” and oppose a bill that would allow illegal immigrants to eventually gain citizenship.
The divisions over immigration underscore the steep challenge facing Priebus and other Republicans who want to broaden the party’s appeal, observers said.
“His challenge is to persuade young people, Hispanics, African-Americans and women that our party cares about their best interests and concerns,” said Jim Gilmore, a former RNC chairman. “I don’t think we’ve done that.”
Sally Bradshaw, one of the autopsy’s authors, noted that the report was aimed at the party as a whole, not just the RNC. She said there has been a lot of movement at the state level to make the tent bigger.
Florida’s Republican Gov. Rick Scott just this past week came out in support of a state-level DREAM Act, letting the children of undocumented immigrants pay in-state college tuition.
“That could not have happened two or three years ago,” said Bradshaw, a close adviser to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has long pushed his party to tackle immigration reform. “It takes losing and learning from your loss to realize … we can’t just talk differently; we have to act differently on some issues.”
“Certainly, we’re nowhere near where we need to be, but we’re moving in the right direction,” she added.
Priebus said the RNC’s outreach efforts have historically suffered from a lack of continuity. Even if GOP lawmakers agree on a general principle, they won’t always agree on methods and timing.
“What you have to recognize, which is an absolute truth, is that there is consensus with the Republican caucus that serious immigration reform has to happen,” Priebus said, citing Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky, House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. “Doing nothing isn’t an option.”
In the middle of what many call a GOP civil war, Priebus must walk a tightrope. Independents are still most concerned about the economy and jobs, but he must also keep social conservatives and libertarians happy.
For instance, last year’s report called for Republicans, with an eye toward attracting younger voters and women, to become more “inclusive and welcoming.” But some social conservatives — unwilling to give ground on issues such as abortion and gay marriage — worried at the time that their priorities would be ignored.
Priebus has worked to reassure them. He has not weighed in publicly on some of the past year’s most controversial issues, including last month on whether Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer should veto a bill that the business community saw as discriminatory toward gays but that evangelicals believed was a necessary protection for religious liberty.
“I’ve never swayed from the principles of our party or what’s in the platform,” he said, speaking generally. “As chairman, I can’t. I have a responsibility, just like any CEO has a responsibility to adhere to the articles of their incorporation and their company bylaws, I have to comply with the platform of this party.”
But he has weighed in at other times: In January, Priebus called for the resignation of Michigan Republican National Committeeman Dave Agema over his anti-gay and anti-Muslim comments on Facebook. (Agema has not stepped down.)
Last year, a host of tea party activists, social conservatives and supporters of 2016 presidential contenders who are unlikely to raise very much money (e.g., former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum) dismissed the 100-page report as a power grab. They believed the establishment-friendly task force was making suggestions that would benefit well-funded, nationally known Republicans such as Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Priebus has worked to assuage these fears. At a January meeting, the 168-member committee voted to pass significant rule changes likely to condense the 2016 primary calendar, some of which were suggested in the report. The changes stiffened penalties for states that vote earlier than allowed and laid the groundwork for a national convention as soon as late June or early July.
Priebus worked behind the scenes to ensure the agreement’s nearly unanimous passage, including gaining support from many in the wing of the party led by Kentucky’s libertarian-leaning Paul.
Next on Priebus’s agenda is moving to limit the number of GOP presidential primary debates in 2016. There were 20 in 2012, and the task force suggested cutting that number by half. The RNC chairman is still devising a strategy on the debates, which will likely come up at a May meeting in Memphis.
I’ve got to bring sanity to our primary process,” he said.
Commentator Erick Erickson, who was critical of the autopsy when it came out, praised Priebus, calling him the best RNC chairman he’s seen since starting his RedState blog in 2004.
“I think Reince gets an A if only for realizing the frivolous, self-serving nature of a lot of the report and instead doing what’s right,” he wrote in an email. “He has kept building bridges where other Republicans in Washington are happy to burn them.”
And Priebus, who spends four to five hours a day on scheduled call time with donors, said he’s seeing increasing buy-in about the importance of investing early. Donors felt burned after 2012, but they are regaining their confidence in the party’s prospects.
“We don’t have the White House, so I have to work like a dog,” the chairman said.
Still, the RNC’s efforts to learn from the autopsy could mean little if the party doesn’t end up with a solid nominee for president in 2016, said Ari Fleischer, one of the report’s authors.
Bigger picture, it’s an open question,” said Fleischer, who served as press secretary in George W. Bush’s White House. “Who in this absolutely wide-open Republican race will emerge?”