Awkward comments create dissonance at RNC meeting
Controversial and derogatory comments about contraception, gays, and Muslims at the Republican National Committee meeting displayed the divisions in a Republican Party struggling to modernize.
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 multipronged strategy a year ago to reach out to younger voters, women and racial and ethnic minorities, groups who sided more heavily with Democrats, especially President Barack Obama.
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 press 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.
"In retrospect, I acknowledge errors in judgment and how I addressed them, feel badly about the impact this had had on many here in the land I love, and have learned valuable lessons about the requirements and responsibilities that are to be expected and honored by all who are in leadership positions — including myself," his statement said.
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 Obama's 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 socio-economic 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.
Huckabee said Democrats "insult the women of America by making them 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."
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.
Run by digital media strategist and former advertising executive Chuck Defeo, the project conceivably could help Republicans win close elections.
"We're starting behind the eight ball, but we're building a good machine, and we're doing it across the country from the ground up," he said.
Alex Smith, 24, said Republicans can only gain back the edge they had with young voters they narrowly held in 2000 by updating the language and the tools that they use to reach her and her peers.
"Channels and messages matter," the Seton Hall University law school student and chairwoman of the College Republican National Committee said. "If you're talking to younger voters on television, radio or direct mail, you're not reaching them."
Yet, outside the ballroom, RNC members murmured about the status of Agema, whose Facebook posting earlier this month had criticized Muslims for not contributing anything to the country.
"Have you ever seen a Muslim do anything that contributes positively to the American way of life?" he asked in the final passage of the piece, which Agema had copied from another author.
Months earlier, Agema had referred publicly to "filthy homosexuals" and posted the Facebook piece days before GOP Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder subtly chided him during his annual address: "We've had people make comments that were derogatory, that were negative toward other people, and publicly tonight I'd like to make a call to all citizens of Michigan to ask us to have a greater degree of civility and respect."
Still, before the RNC meeting, neither Snyder nor GOP Senate candidate and RNC member Terri Lynn Land had joined Republican House members from Michigan to suggest Agema resign from the committee.
Land called for him to step down after the Priebus and Schostak statement.
Priebus was one of the few at the meeting who called for Agema's resignation. Even authors of the report he commissioned wouldn't go that far.
"We were very clear we need to be more inclusive," said Zori Fonalledas of Puerto Rico, one of the five authors.
"That is an issue for his state," said Henry Barbour, a Mississippi committeeman who, like Fonalledas, helped write the report.
Annette Teijerio, a RNC member from Nevada, said Priebus and Schostak were right to ask Agema to quit.
"There's a perception that Republicans are anti-Hispanic," she said. "Whatever it takes to dispel that perception, so be it."