Long hailed as the savior who restored much-needed financial order to the GOP, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, in his third year in the high-profile post, suddenly finds himself in troubled waters.
Tea party conservatives and even fellow RNC members are grumbling about some of the recommendations and proposed policy shifts in the post-mortem, written by five Republicans hand-picked by Mr. Priebus, ordered up after the party’s disappointing election results last year.
“The RNC has, for too long, had a reputation among the grass roots as being imperial — for being run by an elite who simply want the rest of us to do what we are told,” said Missouri GOP Chairman Ed Martin, a tea party-supported lawyer who was gubernatorial chief of staff to Matt Blunt. “Having five people appointed by Reince Priebus tell the rest of the Republican Party how things are going to move forward is exactly the kind of act that reinforces that reputation.”
Among the annoyances of Mr. Priebus’ critics is a line in the 100-page report that the press interpreted as a cynical abandonment of the party’s positions on marriage in order to win the youth vote. Young voters appear to be increasingly tolerant of same-sex marriage.
“Already, there is a generational difference within the conservative movement about issues involving the treatment and the rights of gays — and for many younger voters, these issues are a gateway into whether the party is a place they want to be,” according to the RNC report.
“Nonsense,” Marianne Gasiecki, a national Tea Party Patriots council member, said after reading the “gay rights” recommendation. “Showing weakness in principles is not a ‘gateway to youth.’”
Critics also complain that three of the five authors of the report are loyal to a party establishment that covets exclusive power to set policy and pick candidates rather than to the conservative activists in the party’s base.
The Priebus appointees — with ties to former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, former President George W. Bush or former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — held “listening sessions” with RNC members to find out what the members wanted to see in the report.
Priebus spokesman Sean Spicer maintained that all sides of the RNC membership and the broader GOP voter coalition were heard and their voices were included in the final report.
“The statements and recommendations of the report’s authors, which included three members of the RNC, were the result of input from over 50,000 people and countless calls from the 168 members of the RNC,” said Mr. Spicer.
Missing social conservatism?
But Iowa RNC member Tamara Scott, a religious conservative, said neither her views nor those of other conservative members were reflected in the report.
She also objected to party leaders “like former RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman flying into Iowa for closed-door meetings with a select group of Iowa Republicans to promote same-sex marriage.”
“It is this type of unfortunate confusion that causes our base to lose confidence; and we all know, a shaky foundation cannot support its own weight, let alone additional growth,” Mrs. Scott said in an email to fellow RNC members. “If we are seen as pandering our principles for the hope of some possible expansion to our party, it will be temporary, as we will see a split that will far outweigh any potential gain.”
In a Wall Street Journal opinion column on Friday, former State Department official Liz Cheney, a strong national-defense conservative, expressed the same concern as Mrs. Scott — that the Republican Party should not become “Democrat Lite by moving away” from its principles.
“You can be sure that President Obama would welcome an America in which the Republican Party is preoccupied with remaking itself into a watered-down version of the Democrats,” said Ms. Cheney, whose views are largely parallel to those of her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney.
No official change
Some RNC members think the problem may be as much with the Priebus-approved document’s language as with its intent.
“The report has confused people about where the Republican Party stands on the issue of marriage,” said Carolyn McLarty, chairwoman of the RNC Resolutions Committee. “The report notes an increasing acceptance of homosexuality among younger voters.” Mrs. McLarty said that “does not mean the GOP will change its stance on marriage to accommodate others who want to redefine marriage.”
Disgruntled Republicans say the impression is that Mr. Priebus, as chairman, bowed to the interests of the party’s wealthy donors who tend to favor tax breaks, less regulation and more “corporate welfare” from the federal government and have little interest in defending traditional marriage, abortion, prayer in schools and other social and religious issues.
“The GOP elite already have plenty of influence over the direction of the party,” said Mr. Martin, the Missouri GOP chairman. “Our last two presidential candidates were the choice of our upper echelons, and both candidates lost. Now it seems the same team that engineered the last two defeats has cobbled together a report that exonerates themselves, recommends another expensive round of spending on the firms they own and run and takes a swipe at two platform planks that the rank-and-file members of platform committees all over the nation have been supporting for decades.”
Tea partyers and GOP officials friendly to the movement are particularly fuming over the recommendation that Republican presidential hopefuls win delegates to the national convention through primaries in all 50 states rather than the current mix of primaries, caucuses and state party conventions. The latter two bring out conservative activists who tend to support conservative candidates.
The report’s language is explicit on the subject, recommending the “broadening the base of the party and inviting as many voters as possible into the GOP by discouraging conventions and caucuses for the purpose of allocating delegates to the national convention. Our party needs to grow its membership, and primaries seem to be a more effective way to do so.”
That does not sit well with conservatives like Mr. Martin. “Recommendations such as eliminating caucuses are a slap in the face to grass-roots groups who, playing by the rules, have gained influence in the GOP,” said Mr. Martin. “They will perceive this change as the GOP changing the rules to control the outcome.”
Mr. Priebus has taken to pointing out that any changes on primaries would have to win approval from a daunting three-fourths of the 168-member RNC.
Spring meeting coming up
But it’s the perceived hubris in the national chairman’s appearing to try to dictate policy on the nomination process and gay marriage that will most pain Mr. Priebus going into the RNC’s spring meeting in mid-April in Los Angeles.
In his defense, Mrs. McLarty, an Oklahoma veterinarian, said Mr. Priebus is getting pummeled in the press on marriage even though “he has repeatedly stated that he and the 2012 Republican Party platform stand firm that marriage is only defined as the union of one man and one woman. That has not changed.”
A resolution reaffirming the RNC’s support of traditional marriage will be introduced at the spring meeting.
“We must be very clear where we stand and why,” Mrs. McLarty said. “Marriage is a cornerstone of the Republican Party’s social conservative foundation.
Some party strategists are looking for language that mollifies all sides on the thorny questions the report addresses.
“As the chairman made clear multiple times, the principles of the party are clear,” Mr. Spicer said. “As we look to grow the party and win elections, we need to ensure we treat all individuals with dignity and respect.”