With a rainbow coalition of voters propelling President Obama to a decisive Electoral College victory in which all but one battleground state turned blue, election night 2012 was a wake-up call for many Republicans. Now, the GOP is beginning to delve into a long and likely divisive period of self-examination over what it can do to right itself with a rapidly changing America.
The consensus among many top Republican strategists and politicos, from Karl Rove to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to Sen. Marco Rubio is this: If the GOP can't rebuild a foundation more welcoming to key subsets of the electorate, it runs the risk of being shut out of the White House for good.
"Our party needs to realize that it's too old and too white and too male, and it needs to figure out how to catch up with the demographics of the country before it's too late," Al Cardenas, head of the American Conservative Union, told Politico after the election. "Our party [has] a lot of work to do if we expect to be competitive in the near future."
If the goal is straightforward, however, the course is anything but. How does the GOP bridge that waning demographic gap exposed by the election and recalibrate its message to a changing electorate? How does it preach change to a staunch base of party faithful? How does it embrace a more colorful coalition of voters without alienating its fundamental values or its base? These are the difficult – and divisive – questions that the Republican Party will be grappling with for years to come.
But grapple it must, warns Republican strategist Ford O'Connell, "or else [it will be] wiped off the electoral map."
That process begins with diagnosing what, exactly, went wrong Nov. 6. Many party activists interpret the election's close split in popular vote as evidence that the fundamentals of the party are solid. These individuals, including Rush Limbaugh and tea party activist Matt Kibbe, say the problem was the candidate, not the party. If anything, they say, the GOP must become more conservative.
"We wanted a fighter like Ronald Reagan who boldly championed America's founding principles," Tea Party Patriots cofounder Jenny Beth Martin told The Dallas Morning News shortly after the election. "What we got was a weak, moderate candidate, handpicked by the Beltway elites and country club establishment."
Citing the roughly 51 percent to 49 percent split in popular vote, Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak says Mitt Romney's loss was not a repudiation of conservative ideals, but a cautionary tale about superior Democratic campaigning.
"Conservatives don't feel like conservatism lost. Conservatives feel like they nominated another establishment, moderate nominee and came up short," he says.
"People who think it was Mitt Romney's fault that Republicans lost and not the Republican brand don't have a full grip on demographic realities," Mr. Hudak says. "If they don't settle on the idea that they have a demographic problem, they will be demographically barred from controlling the White House."
While many factors undoubtedly played a part in the GOP's thrashing in the election, it's difficult to deny the party's "pathetic job of reaching out to people of color," as former Governor Huckabee told Fox News.
Consider the numbers: The president won Latinos 71 percent to 27 percent, Asians 73 percent to 26 percent, gays and lesbians 77 percent to 23 percent, and blacks 93 percent to 6 percent. Single women gave 68 percent of their vote to Mr. Obama and voters under age 30 gave him 60 percent of their vote. All are growing sectors of the electorate.
There was one area where Mr. Romney trumped Obama: He won the white vote 59 percent to 39 percent. That's the best a GOP nominee has done among whites since 1988. But that's the one sector of the electorate that is shrinking.
To remain viable, then, the GOP must become more of a "minority party."
Changing the party
With projections predicting that Latinos will make up 30 percent of the population by 2050, Republicans' first order of business is courting the Latino vote. "If we don't do better with Hispanics, we'll be out of the White House forever," says Republican strategist Ana Navarro.
That means immigration reform.
"It's very simple," says Mr. O'Connell, chairman of the Civic Forum PAC in Washington. "We've got to take control of immigration reform."
Republicans can look to rising stars like Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Senator Rubio of Florida for leadership on reform, including a better system to admit temporary workers and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants – an ongoing point of contention in the party. Amnesty should be an option "if we can come up with a plan to secure the border," O'Connell adds.
Another leader the GOP can turn to for guidance? George W. Bush, who won 44 percent of the Latino vote in 2004, Hudak says.
"Oddly, their path to success with Latinos is to do what George W. Bush did. They have to ask themselves, 'What would George do?' "
That includes reaching out to Latino communities and community leaders, helping Spanish-speaking individuals gain access to education and resources, and ending vilifying rhetoric about deportation, he says. "They have a playbook; Karl Rove wrote it and George Bush executed it masterfully."
Next on the GOP's agenda: social issues.
"The GOP cannot continue to engage in fire-and-brimstone rhetoric with respect to social issues," O'Connell says. "The GOP mantra for the past decade has generally been, 'Our way or the highway.'... And while the GOP is primarily a pro-life, traditional-marriage party, it can maintain those positions and win in a national election, but it has to acknowledge that not everyone may agree with those positions."
In other words, the GOP doesn't need to change its stance on abortion or start cutting ribbons for Planned Parenthoods across the country; it simply needs to shut down rhetoric about Planned Parenthood and "legitimate rape" and moderate its position enough to allow abortion supporters to consider the party.
Here, Republicans can look to Romney for guidance. "Romney started this by saying I am pro-life with exceptions, but I am not going to push to change our current abortion laws," O'Connell says.
The GOP can make inroads among new parts of the electorate "if, and only if, it stops being the police of social issues," Hudak says.
But how does it forge a platform more palatable to a changing America while remaining true to its conservative principles, and without alienating its base? "That's their challenge," Hudak says. "Tiptoeing through a mine field."
The best strategy, he says, is one Republicans themselves honed on same-sex marriage.
"It was on everyone's lips in '04 and '06, then [the GOP] realized people are changing their minds, no one cares about this. And what they did was just stop talking about it," Hudak says. "Maybe that's what they need to do on abortion, just stop talking about it."
As for immigration reform, both O'Connell and Hudak say there is a strong economic argument to be made in favor of reform. The party will find a receptive audience among business leaders and moderate Republicans, as well as Mormons, whose church is pro-reform, and Roman Catholics, whose institutional memory of ill treatment renders them sympathetic, they say.
In short, it's more of a messaging problem than a principles problem, O'Connell says.
"I don't know necessarily that [the party] needs to change principles as much as it needs to change the way it communicates. We have a communication problem on social issues," he says. "[We need to] figure out how to better communicate, package, and sell our policies."
What does a remade GOP look like?
"It's one that is definitely more inclusive," O'Connell says. "It better reflects the battleground states in terms of demographics; it looks more like Florida and Virginia. It's also one where fiscal issues trump and [one that] recognizes not everyone agrees on social issues."
Hudak takes it a step further.
"A well-reinvented Republican Party has to be the party of fiscal responsibility and fiscal pragmatism, and it needs to get away from social issues entirely.... Social issues will go the way of women's suffrage – no one's going to care about it. But we're always going to have economic problems. We're always going to have periods of recession in a cyclical capitalist economy. Brand yourself as an economic policy party and you do well.
"That's what a reinvigorated, reinvented, reenergized Republican Party looks like. The path [to get] there is a rocky one, with demographic speed bumps; but if you can talk economy, you can get there."