GOP Looks To Future With Today's Vote for Chairman

GOP Looks To Future With Today's Vote for Chairman

By Kyle Trygstad - January 30, 2009

After sustaining significant losses in the last two election cycles, the leaders of the Republican Party find themselves gathered in Washington DC this week pondering the kind of existential questions normally reserved for philosophers and amnesiacs: Who are we and how did we get here?

Those questions will be answered, at least in part, later today when the Republican National Committee elects a new chairman whose job will be to help the party find a path back to power.

"It's obvious that in 2006 and 2008 we had a lot of trouble all over the country," said Katon Dawson, chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party and one of five candidates for RNC chair. "No matter who gets elected, it's going to be a new party and new direction."

Who They Are

A quick look at the landscape shows what the GOP is dealing with: After the 2004 congressional elections, Republicans held a 30-seat advantage in the House and a 10-seat edge in the Senate; the GOP now has a 77-seat deficit in the House and -- should Al Franken (D- MN) be seated and Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH) become the next U.S. Commerce Secretary -- a 20-seat deficit in the Senate.

And that's just in Congress. In the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama won 53% of the popular vote, 365 electoral votes, and carried nine states that President Bush won in 2004 along with all of John Kerry's states.

"The results of the two recent elections are real, and so are the obstacles we face as a party," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a speech yesterday. "And my concern is that unless we do something to adapt, our status as a minority party may become too pronounced for an easy recovery."

How They Got Here

"The GOP got drunk with power, and it's time for an intervention," said Mark McKinnon, a former Bush adviser who worked on John McCain's primary campaign in 2008. "We need to be reminded about what America looks like and better reflect its diversity and values," McKinnon told RealClearPolitics.

McKinnon recently wrote that the Republicans' problem is that those "working in leadership and the trenches are largely old, white, male, out-of-touch, out of ideas, technology averse, and living in the past."

Looking around the hotel ballroom yesterday where GOP leaders from around the country were gathered, McKinnon's words seemed to ring true. Michigan Committeeman Keith Butler, one of three black RNC members, agreed.

"You need more young people in this room. You need other people of different races," Butler said. "And that's part of the debate that's going on, and one of the things that came out here today."

Republicans are not just lacking minorities in party leadership positions, but also among elected officials and voters themselves. Out of 178 GOP House members, only six are minorities -- three are Latino, two Asian and one Native American. Comparatively, 64 of the 255 Democrats in the House are minorities -- 39 are African-American, 21 Latino and four Asian.

Even excluding African-Americans, who not surprisingly voted for Obama in record numbers this year, exit polling from 2008 found other minorities voting Democratic at a significantly higher rate than in 2004. That year, Bush trailed Kerry by just 9 percentage points among Latinos and 12 points among Asians. In 2008, Obama won the Latino vote by 36 points and the Asian vote by 27 points.

"With the growth of Hispanic voters in the state of Texas, if we don't do better with Hispanics we'll soon lose Texas," Butler said of the state that's voted Republican in the last eight presidential elections and is the home of the party's last two presidents. "So we'll have to devise policies that reach out to minority voters, such as Hispanics. There is a debate going on right now about changing the face of this party and how it's going about that."

McConnell spent a significant portion of his speech on the importance of winning Latino voters. "The future of campaigns and elections depends, for both parties, on the ability to attract voters from the Hispanic community," he said. "This is particularly true for us, since Hispanic growth is even more dramatic in regions where we do best."

Young voters are another demographic Republicans are losing badly. In 2008, Obama won the 18 to 29-year-old bloc by 34 points. The only age group John McCain won was those 65 years and older.

A major reason Republicans offer for their decline in support across the country is the political drag of an unpopular president. "Considering the economic crisis and the unpopularity of George W. Bush, I think we did pretty well" in 2008, said Virginia Committeeman Morton Blackwell, referring to McCain's 6-point loss in the Old Dominion, which hadn't voted Democratic since 1964.

Other issues Blackwell pointed out were the "enormous imbalance of resources" and the fact that Republicans have been slow to keep up with technology, particularly "with the social networking, viral marketing operation."

Where They Go From Here

The discussion this week was not only about learning lessons from the past, but about what course the party should set for the future. McKinnon thinks Republicans first need to remind themselves what the country looks like. "Let's put the Republican Party elite in an amazing race," he said. "Take everyone from the Winter Meeting, plant them in downtown Los Angeles, take away all their belongings, strip them down to their shorts, give them $100 and make them find their way back to Washington, D.C."

Not surprisingly, those in attendance yesterday had other ideas.

"We have to speak to the issues that the middle class cares about. They want the economy fixed," Butler said. "We have to I.D. those issues that young voters care about. And you have to include them in the process."

McConnell told RNC members yesterday that the party needed to change its image, which currently "isn't very pretty."

"Ask most people what Republicans think about immigrants, and they'll say we fear them," McConnell said. "Ask most people what we think about the environment, and they'll say we don't care about it. Ask most people what we think about the family, and they'll tell you we don't -- until about a month before Election Day."

Dawson, who will know his fate in the race for chairman by this afternoon, said the GOP needs to get back to its fundamentals and learn from its mistakes.

"If we don't take what brought us to national prominence all over the country and continue to run like Republicans, we might not be successful," he said. "On the other side, I think we're going to be very successful because when you go through two cycles like this, it's sort of like burning your hand on the kitchen stove -- you only burn it once. We burned it twice this time."

Kyle Trygstad is a Washington correspondent for RealClearPolitics. Email him at: Follow him on Twitter @KyleTrygstad.

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