One year ago, a frank Republican Party assessment of why it came up short in the 2012 presidential election included a stark recommendation.
Embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform, the post-mortem authors urged, or get used to a party whose appeal “will continue to shrink to its core constituents only.”
That bold assertion was decidedly offstage Monday, as the party orchestrated a full-on media effort to mark advances it says it’s made as a result of recommendations contained in the 2013 Growth and Opportunity Project report.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus pointed to successes over the past 12 months including improved data collection, new state-level staffers more involved in minority communities, and a rejiggering of the presidential primary, debate and convention schedules — calendar changes designed to condense the season and not leave the eventual nominee so battered.
The party has already moved the start of its primary season to February, its convention to late June or early July, and is working to limit the number of candidate debates.
Glenn McCall, a committee member from South Carolina and one of five co-authors of the 2013 “autopsy,” said that the party had heard the message that “we were not showing up.”
McCall, who is African-American, said that he has seen “solid progress, and comprehensive progress” in terms of party field workers going to “communities where we’ve never gone before.”
Sally Bradshaw, a Florida committee member and report co-author, said some of the progress the party has made on the digital and data front helped Republican candidate David Jolly win a Florida special election last week for a vacant congressional seat.
The victory over Democrat Alex Sink, Bradshaw said, was in part due to a new canvassing app developed by the national committee that provided voter log lists and other data fed directly to the RNC.
But it was clear during an RNC-arranged media call that party leaders wanted to avoid an issue that has pitted electorally pragmatic GOP members against a right flank that has blocked immigration reform in the U.S. House — especially at a time when the Democratic Party is struggling for a midterm issue and faces losing control of the Senate this fall.
“We obviously recommended that Republicans support immigration reform,” said Henry Barbour, a Republican National Committee member from Mississippi and one of the report co-authors. “We’ll continue to encourage people along those lines.”
A comprehensive immigration overhaul bill approved last summer by the Senate has stalled in the GOP-controlled House.
The recurring theme of Monday’s call was to focus on what’s happening in the states, rather than on federal immigration legislation. “We’re not dictating how policy, how that question is handled on the Hill,” said McCall.
“We recommended it and see it as something of importance to the party,” he said, but he noted that it’s out of the RNC’s purview to pursue action on the Hill.
Priebus ordered the so-called autopsy report after Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney attracted only 27 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2012 and young voters and women helped propel President Obama to a second term.
The resulting assessment was seen by some as a clear-eyed examination of a party at risk of being overrun by demographic and generational changes. But many Tea Party and social conservatives were infuriated by what they, at the time, characterized as an effort by the GOP establishment to control the issues and dialogue.
Those criticisms remain, particularly around legislation that would overhaul the nation’s immigration system, including establishing a path to citizenship — anathema to the more conservative wing of the party.
“There are many ways to do it,” said Bradshaw. The RNC, she said, is not trying to “proscribe or limit” ways to do it.
She and others pointed to immigration-related efforts in states such as Florida, where Republican Gov. Rick Scott, in a tough re-election year, has proposed allowing “qualified Florida students” to pay in-state college tuition rates regardless of their immigration status.
The National Conference of State Legislatures in its 2013 immigration report noted a spike in the immigration-related legislation introduced by states to 253, from 111 in 2012. Many bills sought to extend in-state tuition to children brought to the U.S. by undocumented parents and to issue driver’s licenses to undocumented workers.
Court challenges of hard-line immigration enforcement legislation of the type Arizona passed in 2010, the NCSL reported, have discouraged states from passing such bills, which “largely disappeared” in 2013.
Still, a year after the intraparty assessment, the GOP has focused its immediate strategy not on Hispanics and immigration but on President Obama and his health care legislation. (Obama, himself under fire from Hispanic leaders for his administration’s aggressive deportation policies, last week sought to placate critics and announced a review of immigration enforcement policies.)
Monday’s press call came a day after Priebus referred to the health care law as “complete poison” and as the party launched what it characterized as a six-figure cable and digital ad buy targeting minorities and young voters in 14 states with contested 2014 Senate races.
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