Has the Republican Party become too ideologically narrow and intolerant to win elections — or just the opposite, too liberal and squishy?
Or are the party’s problems, which led to a shocking loss to President Barack Obama in 2012, merely problems of marketing and tactics, and not its position on issues?
A report coming out Monday from a blue ribbon task force set up after the election by Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus will talk about what the party needs to do to recover.
Ahead of the report, a sampling of Republicans with various ideological viewpoints, from grass-roots activists to high party officials, disagreed on the path forward.
Some said the party is too conservative, some too moderate, and some said the problem isn’t substance but image and strategy.
The RNC’s Growth and Opportunity Project report probably will talk more about strategy and operations than ideology or issues.
“Coming up with boilerplate stands that Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie and Bobby Jindal could all run on is an unsquareable circle,” said Dan Schnur, a veteran California GOP strategist and political science professor.
The committee consists of five of the party’s most influential strategists, including Florida veteran Sally Bradshaw, who was circumspect about its contents.
“We’ve reached out in person or via survey to thousands of interested Republicans, including some who have left the party, and I’m very encouraged by what we’ve been able to learn — more on Monday,” she said via email.
Based on hints from Priebus and others, a couple of its ideas already are known.
One is that Republicans were left in the dust by the Obama campaign’s cutting-edge system for identifying and turning out favorable voters.
“The Romney campaign was shocked because Obama’s campaign knew exactly who their 59 million voters were — their names, where they lived and whether they’d been to the polls,” said Tom Gaitens, a Hillsborough County tea party activist.
Bradshaw said “data and digital enhancements are critical parts of our plan.”
Another idea stems from the outsized influence of televised debates on the 2012 GOP primary and general election. Some Republicans are angry because they think network moderators stacked questions to make Republican candidates look bad.
They cite questions about contraception from former Clinton White House official George Stephanopoulos, now an ABC pundit, in a New Hampshire primary debate.
“Some of the questions … were roll-your-eyes ridiculous,” said veteran Florida GOP strategist David Johnson.
Priebus proposes changing party rules so the party can schedule primary debates and pick moderators.
Critics say that will only isolate the party more from the general public, but Johnson said it will give GOP candidates a plausible reason to refuse some debates.
“I don’t see where it’s advantageous for us to have debates that are hosted by the MSNBC talk show lineup,” he said, or to have so many primary debates — 27 between May 2011 and March 2012, according to the 2012 Presidential Election News website.
Barbara Olschner, a Panhandle lawyer who ran in the 2010 Republican U.S. House primary and lost by a wide margin to tea party champion Rep. Steve Southerland, said the party is doomed unless moderate leaders step forward to make it acceptable to more voters, particularly women.
“Women don’t trust the far-right of the party to govern them,” she said.
Republicans “don’t have a marketing problem, they have a heart problem,” Olschner said. “You must completely line up as an anti-tax and social conservative or you’re a RINO,” meaning “Republican in name only.”
She said she’s not optimistic about the Growth and Opportunity report.
“The party doesn’t get it,” she said. “They’re going to pretend they’re reaching out, but nobody buys it.”
Tea partier Gaitens responded that “too conservative” isn’t the problem — “too moderate” is.
“We do not need to be more moderate and accommodating — that’s how we got here,” he said, referring to the nation’s fiscal problems. “The Republican Party has to stop being the Democratic-lite party. It’s time for Republicans to start acting like Republicans and stop acting like Democrats.”
He said the GOP didn’t really lose the election, except at the presidential level, and that beating Obama was impossible “because of their (computerized voter turnout) analytics and because he’s still that historic figure.
“Hundreds of thousands of people voted for him because of the color of his skin — it made us all feel good that he was elected.”
“It’s the pizza and the box,” said Charlie Cook, veteran analyst of the Cook Political Report. “Substantive issues like climate change, contraceptives and immigration have hurt Republicans badly among young people, particularly younger women.”
Both Mitt Romney and GOP congressional candidates lost among women by more than they won among men, and women are a larger portion of the electorate, he noted.
Cook said Republicans can continue to control the House because of “carefully drawn, heavily white congressional districts” but can’t move beyond it without substantive changes.
Retired University of South Florida political science professor Darryl Paulson, a Republican, said the right leader could change the party’s image as “a party that represents only the wealthy” and “extend its appeal beyond southern white men.”
But the party also needs new issues “to appeal to a broader electorate and show Americans how they’re going to be better off, whether it’s on health care or education, than under Democratic proposals,” Paulson said.
Schnur said real change will have to come from the party’s candidates, not a committee report, just as Ronald Reagan reshaped the party in 1980, updating its isolationist foreign policy and making supply-side economics and tax cuts its economic platform.
Today, he said, “The electorate is less white, less married, less religious, less old and less straight than it was when Reagan was elected. The next generation of leaders will also have to reshape the agenda.”