Republican leaders spent three months studying their 2012 election defeat and on Monday announced they were beat on nearly every aspect of politicking, from money to message to manpower, and said one immediate change should be to embrace immigration reform — a lightning-rod issue that nearly tore the party apart under the George W. Bush administration.
Unveiling a 98-page election post-mortem, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus promised a kinder, gentler GOP that will not write off any voters. That begins, the party said, with Hispanic voters and immigration reform.
"By 2050, we'll be a majority-minority country, and in both 2008 and 2012, President Obama won a combined 80 percent of the votes of all minority groups," Mr. Priebus said Monday. "The RNC cannot and will not write off any demographic, community, or region of this country."
The plan calls for the GOP to become a party that voters believe cares about them, beginning with a $10 million image makeover to attract minorities. The plan also includes nuts-and-bolts suggestions, such as shortening the presidential primary process and trying to take control of the debates, which are currently run by television networks.
Mr. Priebus' review shies away from blaming any specific people for the 2012 election, which saw GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney lose a race many in his party thought winnable.
Instead, the report calls for better data on voters, better polling from Republican firms and more savvy use of campaign advertising money.
But it's the call for immigration reform — a policy position — that is likely to stoke the most immediate debate.
At this past weekend's Conservative Political Action Conference, the division on the issue was apparent, with some GOP leaders saying the party needs to embrace legalization in order to shed its mean image, and other conservative activists countering that that's political suicide.
The debate continued Monday, with former RNC Chairman Mike Duncan, who led the party during part of Mr. Bush's presidency, saying it's been obvious for many years that the party has to broaden its coalition to be competitive on a national basis.
"It's the consistency of delivering a message with the right tone to Hispanic voters or other groups," said Mr. Duncan, who came up short in the race against Mr. Priebus for the chairmanship in 2011. "I think that's the theme of this, as opposed to a specific policy."
But groups that favor an immigration crackdown said the GOP will not be able to outbid Democrats on the issue, and so they will not reap any political benefits.
Republican strategist Michael McKenna said it was curious that immigration was the one specific change called for by the party hierarchy.
"It is ridiculous that the only policy statement is that we need to support comprehensive immigration reform," he said. "You can support immigration reform for moral reasons, for philosophical reasons, or for economic reasons. But if you are a Republican and supporting it for political reasons, you are an idiot who cannot read or understand survey data."
He said with the exception of immigration, the rest of the recommendations make sense — but without pointing to specific reasons why the party lost last year, it's tough to move forward.
"It is a little bit like someone going to the doctor with some non-specific symptoms," he said. "The doctor recommends better diet, more exercise, more consistent sleep. All good things, but maybe not the right remedies for the illness."
Mr. Bush proposed immigration reform in 2004 and saw an immediate backlash from some party faithful who said they would boycott donating to the RNC.
But Mr. Bush won about 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in that year's elections.
Since then, the party's share slipped to 31 percent for Sen. John McCain in 2008 and 27 percent last year for Mr. Romney, who ran on the strictest immigration stance of any major party nominee in modern times.
Republicans on all sides of the ideological spectrum have faulted Mr. Romney, arguing he failed to connect with voters, changed his own positions too often, and misspent his money — though he did quite well in raising it.
Mr. Romney has said the drawn-out primary season didn't help him, and one of the new report's suggestions is to cut that short and move up the party's nominating convention to June or July.
The plan also calls for cutting the number of primary debates in half, to about a dozen.
"As [the report] makes clear, there's no one reason why we lost," Mr. Priebus said. "Our message was weak. Our ground game was insufficient. We weren't inclusive. We were behind in both data and digital. And our primary and debate process needed improvement. So there's no one solution. There's a long list of them."
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