- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Republican presidential candidates got to spend a rare week with their families at home for the holiday rather than trekking the frosty roads of Iowa and New Hampshire — one of the biggest dividends to emerge so far from the GOP’s painful 2012 post-mortem on how they managed to lose an election party leaders believed was theirs to win.

Shrinking the primary season — beginning it later and ending it earlier — was one of the more than 200 recommendations for how the party could right itself in the wake of Mitt Romney’s loss to President Obama. It’s also one of the clearest successes of Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus’ tenure.

Other reforms are still works in progress, including having the RNC take control of the debates or pushing candidates to change their rhetoric, if not their stances, on thorny issues such as immigration.

Now, with less than a year to go until the 2016 election, party officials say they’ll see whether their work has paid off — and whether the surprise emergence of billionaire developer Donald Trump and other “outsider” candidates will upset the party’s carefully laid plans to overhaul its image with the electorate.

“I think the proof will be in the pudding after November,” said Sean Spicer, an RNC spokesperson. “If you look at [the 2014 midterm elections], the candidates that embraced the ideas did really well.”

Dubbed the Growth and Opportunity Project, the post-2012 report said Republicans failed to connect with young and minority voters; didn’t do a good enough job of recruiting black, Hispanic or Asian candidates; allowed an unwieldy schedule of debates to tarnish their presidential hopefuls; lacked the kind of voter data files President Obama’s team harnessed to target and turn out supporters; and wasn’t looking far enough down the road to prepare for future elections.

“Before the Growth and Opportunity report, the RNC was always a two-year organization,” said Shawn Steel, an RNC member from California, said. “You would go for broke every two years. It was basically Armageddon. Reince changed the equation by going for the long game.”

Mr. Steel said the operation is now a year-round operation, adding he expects 2,000 paid staffers to fan out across the country working on behalf of the eventual GOP nominee — including many who have already logged significant time in minority communities.

Party leaders have also taken great pains to gain more control of the presidential primary season calendar, which is dominated by high-stakes televised debates in the fall and then the early caucuses and primaries in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina at the beginning of election year.

Debate over debates

Steve Duprey, an RNC member from New Hampshire, said the party has managed to condense the nomination calendar and reduce the number of debates — but said there are still areas for improvement, such as trying to set better criteria for who makes it into the debates.

“It is not the job of the media or national pollsters to determine our field, and I think that, in future cycles, if there are too many candidates to fit on one stage, we should make it a requirement that in the first debates that any division of the field be by random lottery, location on the stage to be by random lottery and that both the debates be done immediately back to back in a time frame,” he said. “To be honest, however, we had no idea that we would end up with 16 credible candidates running at the outset.”

For the most part, Mr. Duprey and others say they are pleased with the progress the RNC has made on structural issues.

Still to be seen is whether Republicans have managed to tame the consultant-happy operations that produced conflicting messages for the GOP in 2012, even as Mr. Obama kept a firm grasp on the Democrats’ messaging in the race.

And Republicans are still grappling with the challenge of Hispanic outreach and immigration — the one area where the post-2012 report dictated a change in stance for candidates.

“If Hispanic-Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States (i.e., self-deportation), they will not pay attention to our next sentence. It does not matter what we say about education, jobs or the economy; if Hispanics think we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies,” the report concluded.

Republicans on Capitol Hill tried to follow that advice, with Sen. Marco Rubio, now a 2016 White House hopeful, leading a legislative effort in 2013 to legalize illegal immigrants. That move foundered in the face of conservative opposition.

Still, the debate was fairly cool until this summer, when Mr. Trump entered the race accusing Mexico of sending rapists and other bad elements of its society to the U.S. — forcing raw, deep divisions over immigration into the open.

“The people who wrote that report must be shaking their damn heads,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a leading immigrant rights group. “It is remarkable that a party that is facing an existential crisis with the demographic changes that America is undergoing has chosen to lurch right in a way that is likely to alienate and motivate minority votes to turn out at record levels” for Democrats.

Given the direction of the Republican field, Mr. Sharry predicted, the GOP’s 2016 autopsy will look like the 2012 report “on steroids.”

Henry Barbour, an RNC member from Mississippi and co-author of the last report, said the emergence of Mr. Trump as a viable candidate is posing a challenge to the party’s blueprint.

“There are a lot of people who have worked hard for decades to put the party in a strong position to help put the country on a good, productive path, but in a heartbeat here is a reality-TV star, billionaire bully who can undo all the good in a couple of interviews before he even takes his slippers off,” Mr. Barbour said.

Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of American Principles Project’s Latino Partnership, said the RNC’s efforts to reach minority votes must be looked at separately from the way the GOP-controlled Congress has refused to address immigration and candidates like Mr. Trump and Mr. Cruz have talked up the thorny issue.

“This is like a movie: You might have the best distribution contract, but if the movie is bad, the movie is bad; and if the candidate is Trump, you are going to have ‘Ishtar,’” Mr. Aguilar said, alluding to the widely panned 1987 movie. “No one is going to go see it.”

Mr. Spicer said the RNC’s role is to build the election infrastructure, and it’s up to the eventual nominee to decide how to use it.

“At the end of the day, when you got in to see your doctor and he says, this is what is ailing you — here are the three things you need to do: exercising daily, eating better and taking this pill — if you don’t do all three, it is not the doctor’s fault,” Mr. Spicer said.

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