MOBILE, Ala. — Republicans hoping to reach beyond the party’s white, aging core must do more than retool campaign strategy and tactics, say young GOP leaders pressing elected officials to offer concrete policies to counter Democratic initiatives.
“It’s very easy to just say no, and there are times where it’s appropriate to say no,” said Jason Weingartner of New York, the newly elected chairman of the Young Republican National Federation. “But there are times where you need to lead and present ideas on the issues of the day.”
Weingartner and other under-40 activists at a recent national young Republican gathering in Mobile said their party must follow an all-of-the-above approach. Their assessment goes beyond the more general prescriptions that many party leaders, including Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman, have offered since November, when Republicans lost the popular vote for the fifth time in the past six presidential elections.
The latest loss was due in large measure to President Barack Obama’s advantage over Republican nominee Mitt Romney among younger and nonwhite voters.
For the most part, Priebus has avoided policy recommendations for elected Republicans and says the Republican platform, a political document that’s supposed to reflect the core values of the party, isn’t the problem.
Weingartner and many of his colleagues agree with Priebus on the platform, and they praise the “Growth and Opportunity Project” that Priebus outlined in March.
But the young Republicans’ ideas are more explicit than the chairman’s blueprint and stand in contrast to a hyperpartisan Congress where many Republicans tailor their actions to please primary voters who loathe cooperation with Democrats.
Weingartner said House Republicans, who won’t pass the Democratic-led Senate’s version of an immigration overhaul, should pass their own version that at least “streamlines and expands” legal slots for foreign students and workers.
For now, he said, that would sidestep Republicans who demand border security and Democrats who demand a citizenship path for immigrants already in the country illegally.
On health care, Weingartner said that besides regularly voting to repeal Obama’s law, the GOP should emphasize its own ideas such as buying insurance across state lines, while better explaining the Affordable Care Act’s cost shift onto younger, healthy individuals.
On same-sex marriage and abortion, young GOP leaders say Republicans should tolerate a range of views, even while maintaining a socially conservative identity. Some of these activists say their party must tread lightly after the Supreme Court recently threw out the most powerful part of the Voting Rights Act, the law that became a major turning point in black Americans’ struggle for equal rights and political power.
“We don’t have to lose our principles,” said Angel Garcia, who leads the Young Republicans in Chicago, Obama’s hometown. “But we have to have a conversation on all these issues so we don’t leave Democrats to say we’re just old white men and racist, bigoted homophobes.”
Chris Reid, a Birmingham, Ala., lawyer, said the GOP has to become more inclusive. “I get really sick listening to people say it’s all or nothing in order to be a good Republican,” he said.
The GOP still controls the U.S. House, holds 30 governor’s seats and stands a reasonable chance of regaining control of the U.S. Senate in the 2014 elections. But 2012 presidential returns justify concern.
Whites, who represent a shrinking share of the electorate, accounted for about 9 out of 10 Romney votes. Obama won Latinos by about 44 percentage points and African-Americans by 85 points. Those groups together accounted for almost one-quarter of all voters.
Among whites, younger age ranges trended more toward Obama. Voters from 18 to 29 years old opted for the president over Romney by a 60-37 margin. Among those age 30 to 44, Obama claimed 52 percent, 7 percentage points more than Romney.
Some Republican strategists say that Obama, as the first black president, set the high-water mark for Democrats among nonwhite voters. Weingartner said the 51-year-old president twice faced much older opponents, a circumstance that could be reversed in 2016. Of several potential GOP candidates, only Texas Gov. Rick Perry, 63, is older than 50.
The Democrats’ leading hopefuls are Vice President Joe Biden, 70, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, 65.
“We have youth and enthusiasm on our side this time,” Weingartner said, though he added that it would be foolish to pin GOP hopes on age.
Speaking to delegates, Priebus promised a “50-state strategy” that involves hiring workers to engage minority communities. “We can’t win if we just show up four months before a presidential election every four years,” he said.
Garcia, the Chicago Republican, said that model, patterned after Obama’s use of neighborhood-based networks, will identify new supporters. But he said the outreach needs a foundation of specifics.
Expanding legal immigration, Garcia said, could make it harder for Democrats to frame Republicans as “anti-immigrant,” a label several Republicans said Romney cemented by advocating “self-deportation.” After remaking legal immigration, Weingartner said House leaders could realize, as part of a border security plan, that the border will never be completely secure, while getting Democrats to consent to a “path to legal status” rather than a “path to citizenship.”
That approach, both men said, would increase the likelihood that Latinos listen to Republican arguments for low taxes, light regulation and individual opportunity.
Darius Foster, a black business consultant in Alabama, said he encounters similar trust issues among African-Americans, who have overwhelmingly supported Democrats since the civil rights movement.
“I never have to defend Republican principles,” he said. “I have to defend Republicans.” That’s even harder, he said, since neighboring Shelby County, south of Birmingham, successfully challenged part of the Voting Rights Act.
A strategy for social issues isn’t as clear, given that younger voters generally are more liberal on those issues than is the GOP platform.
Of course, there’s no guarantee of nuanced approaches from elected officials.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., told delegates that strong opposition to the Senate’s immigration push will help Republicans win working-class votes because some wages would fall at first in an expanded labor pool.
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley urged House Republicans to “stand strong” against Obama.
Rep. Martha Roby of Alabama, 37, told her fellow Young Republicans that a major problem is “low-information voters … who have not been exposed to our arguments.” She added: “We win not by changing our policies but by spending more time and energy convincing people we are right.”
All three got standing ovations.