Republicans found themselves facing agonizing day-after questions Wednesday that they admit are nearly impossible to answer while trying to hold together their diverse electoral coalition and ensure their survival as America's conservative party.
In the wake of Mitt Romney's narrow but decisive loss Tuesday to President Obama, top conservative strategists said the party will have to find leaders from a not very deep pool to help them adjust to increasingly unfavorable demographic trends and voter attitudes reflecting more the live-and-let-live views of young people than the moral imperatives of an older generation.
But that change must come without shattering the electoral coalition of religious, national security and libertarian-minded conservatives that has brought the party control of the White House 20 of the past 32 years, said Pennsylvania Republican campaign adviser Charlie Gerow.
"Conservatives need to revisit everything except the basic formula, 'Conservatives — libertarian means for traditionalist ends,'" said former Reagan White House official Donald J. Devine, a Catholic who has strongly supported traditional values but also sees the importance of libertarian calls to expand the realm of personal freedom.
Top party figures frankly admitted that Tuesday's results called for a major internal reassessment. Sen. John Cornyn, the Texas Republican who headed the party's Senate campaigns, said the stunning net loss of two seats for the party — most had expected the Republicans to add seats and perhaps even regain control of the chamber — meant "we have a period of reflection and recalibration ahead."
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell noted the party's strong showing in holding 30 governorships, but admitted, "We have to do better."
"It's a combination of tone and message and reaching out to new and minority voters. It's all those things," Mr. McDonnell said Wednesday on CNN.
Some said the party's first priority should be to rebuild its internal machinery and match the recent Democratic efficiency in conceiving, financing and carrying out winning political campaigns.
"Until there is accountability for the diversion of donor funds from the hard work of direct voter contact and persuasion into useless, but lucrative, media buys, the GOP grass-roots infrastructure will continue to crumble and the GOP may be old, but it won't be grand," said party election-laws attorney Cleta Mitchell.
Tuesday's voting patterns raised doubts about whether the party should heed the demands of the religious conservatives in the GOP coalition, long resented by more secular conservatives as well as by the party's pragmatists.
Voters in four states on Tuesday approved same-sex marriage, opposition to which in previous cycles had helped Republicans spur turnout and win elections in state after state.
Two states legalized recreational marijuana, and Massachusetts became the 18th state to approve its medical use, suggesting that the opposition to drugs is losing its force as a unifying power for the party's various factions.
On foreign policy, an area in which polls said President Obama held an edge over Mr. Romney, Republicans also will have to come to grips with the growing view within their ranks that, as former Iowa Republican Chairman Kayne Robinson said, "we've taken this nation into too many silly wars at too much expense and no reason to do it, and we should mind our own business more."
Some in the party already have begun venting their long pent-up anger over what critics called Mr. Romney's "imperial" candidacy, a campaign that sequestered itself in Boston with a small coterie of longtime Romney associates and a few reliable veteran party establishment enforcers, stiff-arming any other Republican voices who sought access to the candidate.
The lesson, some in the party say, is never again should a party that claims to live by a bottom-up grass-roots conservative base let itself be smothered by a top-down leadership.
Evangelicals, a mainstay in the conservative coalition that helped elect previous GOP candidates such as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, did not come out in the numbers required to put Mr. Romney over the top in swing states this year.
The internal bloodletting likely will force the Republican National Committee to move its January meeting to elect the party chairman far away from Washington and its myriad consultants and interest-group pressures.
Some will blame RNC Chairman Reince Priebus for the electoral setback Tuesday and demand that he be replaced, possibly with a Hispanic woman, despite the party's long hostility to so-called identity politics as practiced by Democrats.
"Injecting gender and ethnicity into choosing our party's leadership is dangerous because, as conservatives, we must judge people not on their sex and national heritage but on their values, character, skills — in other words, their merit," said Oregon Republican National Committee member Solomon Yue.
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