WASHINGTON — This was to be a roadmap for a new, more inclusive GOP: attract minority voters, support immigration reform and embrace "welcoming and inclusive" attitudes on gay rights. But minutes after unveiling the proposal on Monday, the party chairman distanced himself from it, and some conservatives and tea partyers balked.
It all illustrated the GOP's precarious balance as it works to unite battling factions.
"This is not my report," Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus told reporters, describing the contents as simply recommendations by a five-person panel – even though he was the person who had commissioned the self-audit after the party lost a second consecutive presidential election last fall. He made the comments immediately after declaring Monday "Day One" of the party's push to change perceptions the audit uncovered – that the GOP is "narrow minded," `'out of touch" and "stuffy old men."
"The perception that we're the party of the rich unfortunately continues to grow," Priebus said as he released the report, drawn up by panelists with strong ties to "big-tent" Republicans who have long favored more inclusive policies opposed by ideological purists.
Conservative and tea party criticism was immediate, a sign that the prescriptions may end up widening existing divides rather than building new bridges in an evolving GOP.
"The idea that a major political party must accept the practice of homosexuality as normal so as to remain relevant will prove the contrary and lead to disaster," said John Horvat II, a Catholic scholar. And Jenny Beth Martin, national coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots, faulted Washington GOP establishment leaders for the November losses, saying they strayed from the conservative message.
"Americans and those in the tea party movement don't need an `autopsy' report from RNC to know they failed to promote our principles and lost because of it," she said.
Priebus, the party chairman, released the audit's findings two days after conservatives wrapped up an annual conference in which tea party favorites including Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas drew applause for their blunt critiques of the GOP as antiquated and sometimes unprincipled. At the weekend gathering, conservative pundits including Ann Coulter derided comprehensive immigration reform as a form of amnesty, and organizers initially blocked a group of gay Republicans from participating in the event.
The report also comes as Democrats work to capitalize on Republican fissures, with President Barack Obama courting GOP members of Congress in recent weeks in hopes of getting some to side with his party on major issues before Congress, and as divisions within the GOP are on full display. Several congressional Republicans are working with Democrats on a comprehensive immigration overhaul plan, and last Friday Ohio Sen. Rob Portman – seen as a pillar of the party establishment – became the latest high-profile Republican to announce his support for gay marriage.
Despite party disagreements, the 100-page audit recommended a $10 million minority outreach program designed to market the Republican brand to gay voters, women and racial minorities, a proposal that comes just months after those voting groups helped propel Obama to re-election. The audit also proposes the GOP take a harder line with corporate America, loosen political fundraising laws across the nation, and cut in half the number of candidate debates in a shortened 2016 presidential primary calendar.
Priebus described the recommendations as unprecedented in scope and ambition. He's trying change his party's tone on divisive issues that alienate the very voters the GOP wants to reach. But he's also being careful not to fully embrace the proposals out of a concern that he could enrage his most passionate voters by endorsing changes to underlying policies in the Republican platform that oppose both gay marriage and allowing illegal immigrants to achieve citizenship.
"There is not an easy path for this," said veteran Republican strategist Sally Bradshaw. "These are difficult recommendations."
A top adviser to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, she was among those on the panel that also included Ari Fleischer, White House press secretary under President George W. Bush, as well as Republican National Committee members Henry Barbour of Mississippi, Zori Fonalledas of Puerto Rico and Glenn McCall of South Carolina.
After November's losses, Priebus tapped the five, considered leaders in the party, to examine how the GOP could better talk with voters, raise money from donors and learn from Democrats' tactics. The group also examined how to better cooperate with independent groups such as super political action committees. They heard from 50,000 rank-and-file members about how to respond to the nation's shifting demographics.
The panel's report detailed the GOP's current challenges and included dozens of recommendations, some that the full RNC must approve and others that are simply recommendations for state parties to adopt if they choose.
To broaden its appeal, the party must reach out to minority voters and others, according to one recommendation in the report: "We must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our party's appeal will continue to shrink," it said.
But Priebus refused to say whether "comprehensive immigration reform" should include a pathway to citizenship and distanced himself from the issue.
"There's not unanimity even among Hispanics as to what the exact immigration overhaul would look like," he said. "I think it's healthy for our party to have this discussion, but the details of that, and what that legislation looks like, is not something that the RNC chair does."
A bipartisan group of senators – four Republicans among them – is working to craft a comprehensive immigration bill by next month that would secure the border, improve legal immigration, crack down on employers and put the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country on a path to citizenship.
While he was not willing to endorse the pathway to citizenship, Priebus offered a message to prospective voters: "We welcome you with open arms. There's more that unites us than you know."
McCall cited Portman's leadership when asked about the report's recommendations that the party become more "welcoming and inclusive" on gay rights. But he would not say whether Portman's decision was the correct one. And McCall said the Republican Party should not change its platform to endorse gay marriage or immigration reform.
"To be a part of our party, you don't have to agree with us 100 percent. That's what the message should be on gay marriage or any other issue," McCall said, adding that Republicans need to speak about the sensitive issues in a way that is "caring for all people and understanding."