By Niall Stanage
January 14, 2016
The front-runners for the Republican nomination, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, are casting aside the lessons of the GOP “autopsy” that was intended to prevent Republicans from losing the White House in 2016.
The autopsy report, issued by the Republican National Committee (RNC) in March 2013 after Mitt Romney’s losing campaign and titled “the Growth and Opportunity Project,” was intended to help the GOP set itself up for victory after losing two presidential elections in a row.
In both cycles, GOP candidates lost badly to Barack Obama among minority voters. The former Illinois senator also defeated Romney in 2012 and Arizona Sen. John McCain in 2008 among women and voters under the age of 30.
Now some Republicans fear their party is making the same mistakes.
“To win the White House, a political party has to make folks feel welcome and show that it cares about their daily life,” said Henry Barbour, who was one of five authors of the 2013 report.
“Attempting to appeal to only one segment of the population is bad for governing and even worse for winning a general election. And that’s what Trump and Cruz are largely doing.”
Those two figures will be center stage once again on Thursday evening for the sixth GOP debate, in North Charleston, S.C. , which could mean even more heartburn for party figures who would like to see Republicans strike a more moderate tone.
This season’s debates have been unusually fiery, featuring combative exchanges about immigrants, Muslims and sexism, with Trump at the center of the storm.
The fight that is raging over the direction of the Republican Party has been evident in the aftermath of the GOP response to the president’s State of the Union address on Tuesday evening.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley was chosen by GOP leaders in Congress to deliver the party’s response. Haley, the 43-year-old daughter of Indian immigrants, won praise for her handling of the controversey over the Confederate flag last year following a mass shooting at a historic black church in Charleston. On Tuesday night, she jabbed at Trump, talking about the need to resist “the siren call of the angriest voices.”
But while Haley earned some plaudits, including from the Obama administration, the blowback from conservative activists on social media and elsewhere was fierce.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
Back in 2013, the RNC report warned that minorities “wrongly think Republicans do not like them or want them in the country.”
It said “young voters are increasingly rolling their eyes at what the party represents,” suggesting the GOP was in danger of losing the fight for a new generation of millennial voters.
Noting the party’s difficulty in appealing to unmarried female voters, the report said “spokespeople and staff need to use language that addresses concerns that are on women’s minds in order to let them know we are fighting for them.”
But three years after the report’s release, Trump has rocketed to the top of the GOP race by promising to build a wall on the southern border while temporarily barring any Muslims from entering the country.
He’s also battled charges of sexism. After he clashed with Megyn Kelly of Fox News at the first televised GOP debate, he complained that she had questioned him as if she had “blood coming out of her wherever.”
Cruz hasn’t gone as far as the real estate tycoon, but he has taken a hard line on immigration while talking about bombing the Middle East enough to see if sand can “glow.”
Barbour was eager to contrast those two figures with the other contenders for the nomination.
“The entire rest of our field does a good job of engaging with all Americans,” he said. “That’s critical.”
Yet there is evidence that the success of Cruz and Trump is moving the GOP field to the right, just as it forced Romney away from a more centrist position in 2012.
Last month, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Cruz, a senator from Texas, tangled over who had taken the more conservative position on immigration. Other candidates who have espoused support for immigration reform, such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, have plummeted in the polls.
Former neurosurgeon Ben Carson has been on the decline as well because of questions about his understanding of foreign policy. But his star had originally risen in part because of a series of controversial remarks he made, including referring to Obama as a “psychopath” and comparing ObamaCare to slavery.
Some of the 2013 “autopsy” proposals focused on the nuts and bolts of campaigning — field operations, data innovations, voter registration efforts and the like — and Republican insiders say that there has indeed been progress made in those areas.
But the report also focused on messaging and the subject of immigration, making it plain that Republicans had to do better with Hispanics. It noted that former President George W. Bush had won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004 but that Romney had secured only 27 percent.
“We must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform,” the 2013 report said. “If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only.”
While Trump argues he can win new voters to the Republican Party by appealing to independents and Democrats, a survey released by the Public Religion Research Institute in November suggested he was viewed negatively by 80 percent of Hispanics.
Trump got his campaign underway with a speech in which he suggested the government of Mexico was sending “rapists” across the border.
But the defiance of the autopsy is not limited to Trump. One of the report’s passages insisted, “We need to go to communities where Republicans do not normally go to listen and make our case. We need to campaign among Hispanic, black, Asian and gay Americans and demonstrate we care about them too.”
Yet as unrest followed the killings of young black men by police officers last year, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said that Obama “encourages this lawlessness.” Referring to the main activist group that emerged in reaction to the perceived abuses by law enforcement, the 2016 hopeful also said: “I want the Black Lives Matter people to understand: Don’t call me for a meeting.”
On gay rights, the socially conservative Cruz has called the Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage “the very definition of tyranny.”
GOP strategist Ford O’Connell, who has long insisted that the party must expand its demographic appeal, noted that the more conservative elements of the party are ascendant at the moment.
The nightmare scenario for modernizers like himself, he suggested, was a conservative candidate becoming the nominee and winning the general election because of a “perfect storm” of pro-GOP factors. Such an outcome, he suggested, would postpone the hard conversations that party needs to have internally.
“If they are successful,” O’Connell said of candidates such as Trump and Cruz, “then those who are arguing to broaden our appeal will be pushed to the edges of the party.”
Others have a nearer horizon, fearing that the party could be doomed in November with such a nominee.
“We have some Republican candidates who do a great job of connecting with voters in a positive, inspiring manner. They are the ones who can beat Hillary [Clinton],” Barbour said.
“Of course, we also have candidates whose tone is negative and divisive, and they would make it much easier for Hillary to win the White House.”
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