By Thomas Beaumont
WASHINGTON: The dueling faces of a conflicted political party were on display for all to see at the just-concluded Republican National Committee meeting.
One was younger, more diverse and tech-savvy, part of the RNC’s carefully crafted plan to inspire confidence that the GOP is trying to grow beyond its shrinking, older, largely white base. The other — one that hasn’t evolved since the GOP’s back-to-back presidential losses — lurked in the hallways, occasionally taking center stage at the Washington hotel where party delegates from around the country met to discuss party business.
The reminder of the divisions comes a year after Chairman Reince Priebus published a report aimed at modernizing the party and boosting its ranks, and as Republicans eye their best chance at taking control of both houses of Congress since 2002.
“If our party doesn’t unite, we’re never going to win,” said Jonelle Fulmer, a Republican National Committeewoman from Arkansas.
Following the recommendations in the Priebus-commissioned autopsy of the GOP’s losing 2012 presidential campaign, the national party launched a strategy a year ago to reach out to younger voters, women and racial and ethnic minorities.
Yet, awkward comments about contraception and women’s reproductive systems and chatter over Michigan committeeman Dave Agema’s derogatory comments about gays and Muslims obscured the party’s attempt to feature its efforts at last week’s meeting.
By the end of the three-day conference, Priebus and Michigan Republican Party Chairman Bobby Schostak were calling on Agema to quit, “for the good of the party.”
The only other public comment from party officials about Agema came later during a news conference on the RNC’s diversity outreach team.
“There’s no room in the Republican Party for those kinds of comments,” said Jennifer Korn, the GOP’s national director for Hispanic initiatives.
Agema released a statement Friday night apologizing for his use of words. But he declined to step down from the committee.
The episode created a sharp dissonance with the meeting’s official program, which included sessions on the party’s organizational investments in digital, data-gathering technology and personnel. That’s an area that helped the Obama campaign carry traditional Republican strongholds in 2008 and 2012.
Another sharp contrast occurred when a panel of well-polished women from an array of racial and socioeconomic backgrounds discussed the party’s up-and-coming leaders, just minutes after former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s speech in which he accused Democrats of casting women as slaves to government-sponsored birth control.
The clash between the RNC leadership’s party-broadening goals and the lingering image of a party arguing with itself over tone and tolerance reflects the division that’s playing out in Republican congressional primary campaigns across the country.
Despite the competing messages, there still were signs that Priebus’ plans were moving forward.
Priebus hired 25-year-old Raffi Williams as national youth political director and tasked him with running a program aimed at identifying Republican-leaning voters. It’s similar to an effort begun by the Michigan Republican Party to use Facebook and other online social media to get people to identify like-minded conservatives.