CHARLOTTE — Members of the Republican National Committee meeting here in North Carolina — a location chosen in part because it, along with Indiana, was one of only two 2008 Obama states that turned to Republicans in 2012 — are deeply divided over what ails their party. On one end of the spectrum are those who stress the GOP’s failure to appeal to Hispanics and other minorities, arguing that the party must make fundamental changes to broaden its appeal. On the other end are those who stress the GOP’s failure to master even the basics of voter turnout in the last election, along with the flawed candidacy of Mitt Romney, arguing that the party does not need to change its principles or message so much as learn the turnout and messaging techniques used so successfully by the competition.
It’s not an either-or choice; most members likely fall somewhere between those two ends. But there is still a basic divide between those who emphasize outreach, especially to Hispanics, and those who emphasize turnout and candidate quality. Going the outreach route could mean far-reaching changes in the party. Going the turnout route could mean organizational and technical changes that do not involve re-making the GOP. It’s unclear which side will dominate the 168-member committee. Both sides believe a majority shares their view.
On Thursday, committee members will hear from the leaders of the so-called “Growth and Opportunity Project.” Initially known within the RNC as the “autopsy committee,” the project’s members — Henry Barbour, Ari Fleischer, Sally Bradshaw, Glenn McCall and Zori Fonalledas — were assigned the task of studying the failures of 2012 and coming up with a set of recommendations for the GOP going forward. They are not expected to present any sort of final report here in Charlotte — they were just given the job last month — but they will meet with the committee and discuss a variety of possible reforms.
The bottom line is that RNC members know something is terribly wrong. Some point out that chairman Reince Priebus — who is expected to be re-elected in an uncontested ballot Friday — cannot come before the committee and say, “We were out-spent” or “We couldn’t match the resources of the other side.” The party’s problem is more fundamental than that — simply put, Republicans have either a basic identity problem or an equally basic competence problem — and demands more fundamental answers.
Members will also discuss the degree to which the 2012 presidential failure was the fault of the Romney campaign, or whether the RNC shared some significant portion of that blame as well. Some Republicans believe the RNC ceded too much control of the party’s message to the Romney campaign, which was happy to run the show in the confidence that Romney would soon be elected president. The result was catastrophic. There will be some members urging the party not to give itself over so completely to a presidential campaign in the future.
Also on the topic of Romney, some Republicans are also urging that the RNC throw out some rules, pushed by the Romney campaign last summer at the party’s convention in Tampa, that gave the GOP nominee more control over how individual states choose their delegates to the convention. Team Romney wanted the changes after the hand-to-hand combat that had gone on in some states with Ron Paul supporters over delegate selection (long after Paul failed to win a single caucus or primary).
Grassroots activists were deeply unhappy with the changes, which longtime conservative activist Morton Blackwell called “Ginsberg’s power grabs,” after Romney lawyer Ben Ginsberg, who spearheaded the campaign’s efforts to make rules changes in Tampa. Now, there will be an effort — it’s not clear how organized or how widely supported — to change the rules back to their pre-Romney state. The most likely outcome is that the rules argument will be loud, impassioned, and conducted among a relatively small group of people, leading to minor changes, if any. [UPDATE: On Wednesday afternoon, Republicans decided to push a resolution on the rules question down the road -- it will be considered at a meeting in April.]
Finally, there is the question of leadership — not of the RNC, which is committed to Priebus, but of the larger Republican effort. The GOP activists meeting in Charlotte realize their party has no national leader. They don’t see House Speaker John Boehner in that role, nor do they see any of the party’s past candidates in that role, either. There’s not a lot Republicans can do about the problem at the moment; many believe the party can only wait until an up-and-coming figure — a Marco Rubio, Kelly Ayotte, Bobby Jindal, Paul Ryan, Bob McDonnell, Chris Christie, or someone else — moves into a leadership role in the course of the GOP’s remaking of itself. But for the moment, there’s nobody.