Divided GOP preaches unity

Greg Nash

Republicans were preaching unity at their annual winter conference in Washington this week, but there were still visible cracks where the GOP has a ways to go in addressing the problems diagnosed after the 2012 election.

The party did unite to pass rules to shorten and strengthen its primary process but that was still met with loud objections from the party's more libertarian wing. And familiar ill-timed remarks from former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee on women and birth control were met with public and private grumbling that Republicans need to focus on economic issues if they want to be successful in 2014 and beyond. 

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Attendees at the annual Republican National Committee wanted to focus on the good rather than the bad though, and hailed a landslide vote to overhaul the 2016 presidential primary schedule as evidence the party has made strides in unifying its grassroots, more conservative bloc with its more establishment wing.

Ron Kaufman, a national committeman and adviser to Mitt Romney's presidential campaign and a major proponent of the rules change, said the vote — which passed 153-9 — was an “amazing feat.”

“It’s the most unified I’ve seen the RNC in years and years," said Kaufman. 

RNC co-chair Sharon Day said the vote reflected a consensus within the party that a shorter nominating process was needed to keep the party competitive, a lesson Romney supporters say they took away from the extended primary fight of 2012.

“We’re in the business of winning elections. That’s the bottom line. This is not a social club,” she said.

Supporters pointed to the fact that two former state chairmen on Ron Paul’s campaign and a Rick Santorum state chairman, as well as Newt Gingrich’s general counsel, all supported the change.

Still, both establishment Republicans and movement conservatives predicted future meetings would have more contentious fights over rule changes, including one that allows the committee to change its rules between conventions.

"We got the easy part over," said Ohio Committeeman Bob Bennett, who's more aligned with establishment Republicans, of the temporary calendar changes. 

"There's differences of opinion among the committee about some of the rules [in future meetings]. There'll be a lively debate," said Bennett. 

But those who were on the losing end promised the fight within the party wasn't over. Morton Blackwell, the Virginia committeeman that led the charge against the changes, argued that grassroots conservatives and libertarians were “hoppin’ mad” and would continue to push for greater recognition in the nominating process.

“There has to be a guaranteed demonstration that our party allows some power to flow from the bottom up and that our party is ready to welcome newcomers fairly politiely and even cordially,” he said.

Blackwell said he had committeemembers apologize to him for voting for the rules change and tell him “my arms were twisted.” He suggested RNC Chairman Reince Priebus had made it so clear that he preferred the rules change, some committeemembers felt almost coerced into voting for it.

“You have the entire RNC staff buttonholing people and making sure they’re committed to vote one way or another, and you have the fact that everybody knows that the chairman has total control, not only of all the hiring at the RNC, but also the dispersal of funds at the RNC,” said the Virginia Republican. 

But those who hailed the party’s unity, and even the RNC’s impressive $80.6 million haul for 2013, were somewhat overshadowed by comments made by Huckabee criticizing Democrats for, as he put it, making women believe “they cannot control their libido ... without the help of the government" providing free birth control as part of ObamaCare. 

Democrats seized on the comments as representative of what EMILY’s List, a progressive group working to elect pro-abortion rights Democratic women to office, called the GOP’s “offensive, anti-women beliefs.” The Democratic campaigns were all too gleeful to tie Huckabee to GOP candidates and call for them to return donations from the former Arkansas governor 

The comments were a perfect example of why some Republicans counseled the party to focus more on fiscal issues and less on divisive social issues after the 2012 elections, when Republican candidates’ controversial comments on rape and abortion helped lose them winnable Senate seats in Missouri and Indiana.

Kaufman on Friday repeated the assertion that the winning argument for the GOP was a fiscal one.

“What’s going to make the Republican Party regain the White House, what’s going to make the party pick up the Senate probably, maybe even gain a few in the House, is the fact that we’re the party of economic viability,” he said.

But he said the party has trouble communicating its economic vision because it gets bogged down by the perception that it is “intolerant.”

“I think our biggest problem is we’ve allowed ourselves to be perceived as the party of intolerance. And I think that is our biggest single obstacle,” said Kaufman. "I think when we address that, it makes it a lot easier to solve problems." 

Tennessee GOP Chairman Chris Devaney agreed with Kaufman that the GOP focus should be on the economy, but said the party shouldn't "shy away" from its opposition to abortion. He suggested Huckabee should've chosen better words.

"I wouldn't have framed my speech that way. We as a party should certainly not shy away from our pro-life position but I think we need to be more inclusive, and I think we, are of people who have other viewpoints. I just wouldn't have phrased it in that way. "

And yet the RNC overwhelmingly approved a resolution that urges Republicans to speak out about their opposition to abortion. Priebus committed his support to the anti-abortion movement, flanked by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and a handful of GOP lawmakers, at Wednesday’s March on Life.

While anti-abortion activists hailed the change as a strategic shift towards offense on the abortion issue, the renewed focus on social issues — and the unfortunate timing for them of Huckabee's ill-advised remarks — only raises the stakes that  a rogue candidate could trip up the party.

There was, however, a thematic shift across the week that did seem to unify the party during its annual meeting, across ideology, gender and region — to be seen as the party of compassion. That message was stressed by every speaker, from Huckabee to Priebus to Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), and the anti-abortion activists on the National Mall on Wednesday."

The revival of compassionate conservatism has inspired a renewed focus from the GOP on providing a solution to poverty and effective education reform, issues that were emphasized by nearly every speaker at the gathering, and could be the best answer for the party that still remains deeply divided in many aspects. 

As Scott put it, the party will win in 2014 if it adheres to the old adage: “People do not care how much you know until they know how much you care.” 

 Cameron Joseph and Jessica Taylor contributed.