The Republican rebuild, one year in

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus directs the annual RNC winter meeting Jan. 24, 2014 in Washington, DC.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus directs the annual RNC winter meeting Jan. 24, 2014 in Washington, DC.

One year after President Obama was sworn in for a second term, the great Republican rebuild is going great. According to Republican leaders, at least.

Republican National Committee chairman Reince Preibus delivered an address on Friday touting the party’s improved outreach to minority and immigrant communities who voted overwhelmingly for Obama in 2012. 

“We're getting to know communities where we haven’t been in a long time and we're talking to people who haven't heard form us for far too long,” Preibus said. “That’s how you grow a party.” 

As Preibus noted at the top of his remarks, the RNC released a detailed audit of the party’s health after its 2012 loss that urged leaders to make inroads with minority communities, appeal to young people, win back women, pass immigration reform, and combat their stereotypical fat cat image. 

The RNC’s winter meeting has been billed as a showcase the party’s modest progress, but it’s also a reminder of huge barriers they face moving forward.

On Thursday, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee caused a stir at the RNC gathering when he said Democrats “want women to believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government.”

Democratic leaders seized on his remarks and Huckabee sounded surprised by the negative response. After all, he reasoned, he had said the same thing earlier on his Fox News show without a peep of protest.

But Huckabee’s confusion over the reaction was illustrative of the party’s recent struggles with women. As a number of candidates have learned the hard way, lines that generate applause in front of conservative audiences don’t always translate elsewhere.

Preibus reminded members in his own speech that, “we must all be very conscious of the tone and choice of words we use to communicate [our] policies effectively.”

Underscoring the day’s themes, Preibus released a statement on Friday calling on RNC committeeman David Agema of Michigan, who is under fire for homophobic and anti-Muslim statements, to resign “for the good of the party.”

As RNC officials often reminded reporters, the organization is generally more focused on campaign infrastructure than on setting policy – although they did make an exception in calling for immigration reform last year. To that end, attendees put the most emphasis Friday on their success in hiring new staff, opening new field offices, and organizing events in minority and immigrant communities. They’ve also expanded their foreign-language advertising, including campaigns in Spanish, Korean, and Vietnamese.

“I think we’ve got the right message we just need to continue to take our time to get it to every person in our country,” Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who is the lone African-American Republican in either chamber of Congress, told msnbc. “If we take the time to take it to where they are I think we’re going to do very well.”

It’s easy to unite over “outreach” as a general concept, though. The more sensitive conversation in the party is whether major policy changes are needed to attract voters and not just more personal appeals.

Nowhere has this debate played out more intensely than on immigration, where House Republicans are debating whether to offer a reform proposal legalizing undocumented immigrants after years of consensus support for “self deportation.”

But it’s hardly the only issue raised by the RNC where the party is still ambivalent about what it needs to do. The 2012 autopsy warned that the party’s position on gay rights had become a barrier to attracting young voters, for example. But Republican officials remain overwhelmingly opposed to marriage equality and party leaders recently rallied around Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson after he was suspended for crude anti-gay comments.

When it comes to the party’s “rich guy” image, Preibus praised Republican politicians like Rand Paul, Paul Ryan, and Marco Rubio who have made a point of talking more about poverty in their speeches. But as the recent debate over extending unemployment benefits confirmed, congressional Republicans are determined to shrink the safety net and have yet to coalesce around new proposals to directly aid the poor. A handful of prominent conservative wonks have warned the party that they need to start backing up their stated concern with more robust policy prescriptions.

At the very least, the RNC’s meeting sent a signal that party leaders are interested in hearing from voters outside the conservative bubble. It just may take them awhile to figure out what they want to hear.

“When, in the history of our party, has the RNC been able to completely transform our approach to politics in less than a year?” Preibus said.