Taking a less-hostile tone on abortion and gay rights and reducing the number of primary debates are among the steps the Republican Party could make to become more competitive in national elections, said Henry Barbour, a party leader.
The nephew of former Mississippi governor and one-time Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour, he is also advocating a more inclusive approach to the issue of immigration. Barbour is one of five party members charged with recommending changes after the 2012 loss to a vulnerable President Barack Obama in a contest that spotlighted demographic and technological shortfalls with Democrats that may grow worse without action.
It’s a daunting challenge for a party filled with post-election divisions both in Washington and beyond. The House Republican caucus convenes today in Williamsburg, Virginia, for a retreat that will include discussion about how to address fractures within their own caucus and become more effective in negotiations with the president over spending cuts and raising the $16.4 trillion federal debt limit.
“We have a blank sheet of paper,” Barbour said during an interview in his office overlooking the capitol in Jackson, Mississippi. “Whether it’s good, bad or ugly, let’s figure out what it is we need to do, whether it’s related to message or organization or campaign mechanics. Or is it fundraising? Or is it how we bought our ads? Is it the candidate? Is it our primary process?”
Barbour, 48, an RNC member since 2005, says the party’s problems are likely tied to all those things, plus a need to take a softer tone toward fellow Republicans who support abortion and gay rights.
Although Barbour opposes abortion rights, “it doesn’t mean that there aren’t good Republicans who have different views on abortion and that’s OK,” he said.
“Too many times we come across as hostile,” he said. “I think that’s true with Hispanics. Too often the most vocal people in our party are the ones who come across as anti-immigration, not even anti-illegal, but just plain anti-immigration. We’ve got to change that.”
“If we want to have purity in our party, we can have it,” he said. “But we’re going to be the minority party. We’ll be a mighty small party.”
Those ideas aren’t universally embraced. Bob Vander Plaats, an influential leader among abortion opponents in Iowa, where the presidential nomination process typically starts, said a softer tone wouldn’t translate to greater electoral success.
One of the “key tenets of the Republican Party is the sanctity of human life,” Vander Plaats said.
The anti-tax Tea Party, which has recruited candidates to run against party-backed incumbents, isn’t represented in the party review. It’s an omission that doesn’t surprise -- or disappoint -- at least one leader of the movement.
“What the national committee needs to do is rediscover the Constitution and not worry about how they get along in Washington and with the media,” said Ronald Zahn, a Tea Party activist from Wisconsin. “I would encourage them to listen to the Tea Party, but I’d rather put it this way: listen to the Constitution.”
Zahn said he stopped donating to the RNC “several years ago” because it was “supporting liberal politicians when there were fine constitutional conservatives running.”
Formally known as the Growth and Opportunity Project, the effort Barbour is part of was initiated by RNC Chairman Reince Priebus on Dec. 10 and is studying how Republicans can find more electoral success -- from the local level to Congress and the presidency. The goal is to present findings to the RNC in March, Barbour said.
In an interview, Priebus said he expects the committee will recommend a more sustained effort to recruit and communicate with Republicans and potential party voters.
“The days of building up for three years and then running a short-sprint campaign are over,” he said. “We’ve entered into the world of year-round campaigns, year-round messaging, year-round ground work, voter registration at a very granular level from coast to coast and that’s where the Republican Party is probably going to have to go.”
Discussing the party’s presidential primary process, Priebus said he’d also like to see fewer candidate debates than the more than 20 that were held in 2011 and 2012. He also said he wants the party to play a greater role in picking debate moderators and consider a penalty for candidates who attend unsanctioned forums.
Joining Barbour in the effort are Ari Fleischer, White House press secretary under President George W. Bush; political strategist Sally Bradshaw, a longtime consultant to former Florida Governor Jeb Bush; and RNC members Zori Fonalledas of Puerto Rico and Glenn McCall of South Carolina.
Each of group’s leaders is assigned subtopics to oversee, with Fleischer taking the lead on messaging and presidential primaries and Bradshaw handling campaign mechanics and outreach to women. Barbour is responsible for campaign finance, fundraising and third-party groups. Fonalledas and McCall are leading the study of better outreach to demographic groups and lessons learned from other campaigns.
“This isn’t the same country that elected Ronald Reagan, demographically,” Barbour said. “That’s something that was underscored with the results of this election.”
Hispanics in particular are transforming U.S. politics. In November, they represented 10 percent of the electorate compared with 9 percent four years earlier.
Obama won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote, according to national exit polls. That translated to a 44-percentage-point advantage over Republican nominee Mitt Romney, who won just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote -- down from 31 percent for the party’s presidential ticket in 2008, 44 percent in 2004 and 35 percent in 2000.
This year’s exit polls also showed Obama dominated Romney among single women, blacks and younger voters when he carried eight of nine states both campaigns viewed as the most competitive. That has forced Republicans to recognize that the party’s base of support is shrinking because it is aging, ethnically monolithic and heavily rural.
“We’ve got to really go out and be part of those communities and we’ve got to break bread with these people,” Barbour said of the demographic groups that heavily backed Obama. “It can’t just be a press release. That’s not necessarily complicated, but it’s hard.”
Barbour’s profile has grown in recent years, especially after he was among those backing Priebus’ successful effort in January 2011 to unseat former RNC chairman Michael Steele.
Unlike his uncle, who considered a 2012 presidential bid, the younger Barbour says he has no interest in elective office and is more mild-mannered. He still lives in the community where he grew up, Yazoo City, a town where his father was once mayor.
It’s about a 50-minute commute to his job as a lobbyist in Jackson, where he mostly works on state issues as a partner at Capitol Resources, LLC. He reported almost $500,000 in fees from lobbying clients in Mississippi in 2011, the most recent year that records are available from the secretary of state’s office.
After attending the University of Mississippi in Oxford (called “Ole Miss” by locals), he worked on George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign and in his administration before moving to the RNC, where his uncle was chairman from 1993 to 1997.
As Republicans move forward, Barbour said some candidates need to improve their communications skills, particularly when making appeals to people who are struggling to pay their mortgage, grocery and other bills.
“We’ve got to articulate our policies in a way that people can tell the benefit of what we’re trying to do and that it’s personal,” he said. “Democrats have been much better, I think, at connecting with people in that way. And too many times, I think we sometimes come across as the accountant.”