Expanding the Tent: Republicans Court Diverse Conservatives

BY Simone Pathe  March 18, 2013 at 3:40 PM EDT

Former Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, R-N.Y., addresses CPAC as part of Friday’s 2012 election autopsy panel. Photo by Flickr user Gage Skidmore.

Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus wants Americans to know the Republican party is a big tent, inclusive of a spectrum of conservatism. Priebus unveiled the recommendations of the RNC’s Growth and Opportunity Project report Monday at the National Press Club on the heels of the Conservative Political Action Conference — the annual activist confab held this past weekend.

To craft a more “welcoming form of conservatism,” federal candidates have a lot to learn from state-level candidates, said RNC project co-chair Sally Bradshaw, especially from the 30 Republican governors who have successfully appealed to voters with some of their shared conservative values.

Priebus invoked Ronald Reagan’s mantra that the party only has to agree on 80 percent of the issues. He suggested there’s plenty of wiggle room for the Rob Portmans of the party, alluding to the Ohio senator’s announcement Friday that he supports same-sex marriage.

Before Priebus’ remarks, project co-chair Glenn McCall acknowledged the precariousness of the GOP’s position on same-sex marriage, calling the treatment of gay people a “gateway” for youth voters.

Besides state party organizations, the RNC’s outside group “allies” have important roles to play — helping with voter registration, research and digital training. But Priebus was adamant that the RNC’s leadership role is essential to building the kind of centralized campaign structure that will effectively build a presence and target voters in minority communities.

But what Republicans talk about once they’re in those communities isn’t the focus of this project. Only project co-chair Zori Fonalledas, who delivered her remarks in Spanish before repeating them in English, made a specific policy push — urging the GOP to support comprehensive immigration reform.

“If Hispanics think Republicans don’t want them here, they won’t listen” to anything else the party has to say, she said.

Redolent of the conservative voices at CPAC suggesting the party’s energy system — but not its principles — could use a reboot, Priebus agreed Monday it’s the party’s messaging that needs updating.

Former Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle, R-N.Y., who lost her seat last fall, maligned the GOP’s lack of enthusiasm at CPAC’s own post-mortem panel Friday, titled with characteristic bluntness: “CSI Washington, D.C.: November 2012 Autopsy.” Pondering the cause of the party’s apathy seemed only rhetorical. “That’s a question for another day,” Buerkle said.

Not learning to inspire, however, will leave the party “extinct” — her word choice packing a brutal punch compared to the we-don’t-need-new-ideas mentality touted by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., the previous day.

For the most part, the GOP establishment and conservatives at CPAC see eye-to-eye on the necessity of expanding voter outreach. But conservatives last week didn’t shy away from attacking the GOP’s central organs for some of its failures.

In a subtle dig at the party’s 2012 nominee Mitt Romney, National Review columnist John Fund denied that government should be run like a business. But — the ironic twist dealing a bigger blow — politics, and Republican politics especially, needs to be run more like a business. Fund said Democrats have no problem canning poorly performing consultants but he believes for too long the GOP has been reluctant to fire ineffective staffers and consultants.

Monday’s RNC report acknowledges the need for a “deeper talent pool,” particularly with data and technology competency.

Priebus also alluded to the party’s past business woes Monday, divulging that he and his wife charged the RNC’s bills to their own credit cards when both of the committee’s cards were suspended. Priebus, however, who turned 41 Monday, declined to delve too far into the past — denying that he was making any judgements about previous RNC chair Michael Steele.

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