CPAC puzzle: how to grow a younger, more diverse GOP

White, middle-aged activists at the annual CPAC rally in Washington agree that the Republican Party needs to turn toward diversity, but differ over the ways and means to do it.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Sen. Tim Scott (R) of South Carolina speaks at the 40th annual Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., on Thursday. A theme of the meeting is how to attract a more diverse activist base, including raising the profile of black conservative leaders.

John Bloom and Kevin Williams – two white, middle-aged conservative activists wandering CPAC, the conservative movement’s annual bacchanal for white, middle-aged conservative activists – want the same thing: to bring more African-Americans into the Republican Party.

The two, however, diverge wildly about the paths the party needs to take to get there. Mr. Bloom envisions attracting black voters by holding up deeply conservative African-Americans such as former Rep. Allen West of Florida and long-shot candidate for Virginia lieutenant governor E.W. Jackson. Mr. Williams believes the answer is for the party to become more inclusive and temperate, to reach African-Americans where they are now.

In other words, the two men are pretty much where the Republican Party is today: older white guys who know what needs to happen (make the party younger, more diverse) but who can find no agreement on how to get there.

Bloom’s calling card at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) is a small square of paper with three rhinoceroses on it. Whenever conservatives invoke the horned megafauna, the implication is clear: It’s a vehicle for the derogatory title, RINO, or Republican In Name Only.

Photoshopped onto the middle of the three massive mammals is the head Bloom’s governor, Bob McDonnell (R) of Virginia, who recently signed off on a sweeping reform of the commonwealth’s transportation funding that included plenty of new taxes.

Not only is Bloom happy that Governor McDonnell wasn’t invited to address CPAC this year (he’s been a staple in years past, but the transportation bill was a no-go), but he’s also outraged that McDonnell is the keynote speaker at a private prayer breakfast on Friday morning.

“I’ve gotten fed up with the Republican establishment,” says Bloom, who works in a Newport News, Va., shipyard.  

Calling out Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, among others, Bloom says: “There are people in here who still shouldn’t be here.”

Bloom’s solution to the party’s problem? Hold up conservatives who are both minorities and deeply conservative, and allow them to take the message into new communities.  

“If we get three old, angry white guys – we’re done [in Virginia’s 2013 elections]," says Bloom, nodding ruefully over his shoulder to the main CPAC stage.

There, Virginia Attorney General-cum-GOP-gubernatorial contender Ken Cuccinelli had just finished a speech that could be well described as vintage “angry white guy.”  

That’s the opposite view of Williams, a member of his local Republican committee in Trenton, N.J. He says CPAC’s shunning of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) is a bad idea, citing another well-worn adage at conservative gatherings: President Ronald Reagan’s rule, as Williams puts it, holds that “If we agree with each other 80 percent of the time, you’re still my friend.”

Williams spent six years making a film, “Fear of a Black Republican,” about his party’s unwillingness to reach out to black voters. The results were not encouraging.

“Nobody wants to do it,” he says. Party mandarins “always say, ‘yeah, let’s do it, let’s do it,’ but … it’s about the money and resources. Our money and our resources have been going to the South, the Midwest, and the West. We give up on the coastal states.”

This debate between purity and openness at the grass roots echoes to the pinnacle of big-bucks political power.

Al Cardenas, chairman of The American Conservative Union, which puts on CPAC every year, came down on the side of the purists by withholding invitations from Governors Christie and McDonnell this year.

“Reagan rejected calls to broaden the base of our party … a political party cannot be all things to all people,” Mr. Cardenas said in his opening remarks.

He continued by quoting Reagan, who spoke at the first CPAC 40 years ago. “If there are those who cannot subscribe to the principles, let them go their own way.”

A panel discussion late Thursday evaluated the so-called Buckley Rule – a concept laid down by former National Review legend William Buckley that holds that conservatives should support the most conservative candidate who is likely to get elected. The panel reached a similar but less restrictive conclusion.

In recent Senate races over the past several elections, far-right candidates with deep-pocketed donors locked horns with candidates backed by the more staid party establishment and their own Daddy Warbuckses. Those battles led to chasms of mistrust within the Republican Party and a host of embarrassing losses that many strategists conclude cost Republicans either narrow control or a much larger minority in the US Senate.

Steven Law, the head of Crossroads GPS, the most powerful Republican "super PAC," argued that the choice between a “conservative” candidate and an “electable” one is often a false dichotomy.

Instead, the party should avoid trying to boost weak candidates who tilt toward either side of the ledger with outside money.

“Sometimes, when you support somebody you become a life-support system,” Mr. Law said. “If a candidate can’t fundamentally do it on their own, we ought not to be backing them.”

With others nodding in assent, former California GOP chairman Ron Nehring argued that the way to avoid the problematic weighing of ideological purity versus electability was a practical concern: The party is too weak, Mr. Nehring said, and needs to train better candidates.

“Just because you are conservative does not make you a good candidate. These two wheels spin independently of one another,” Nehring said, laying out a three-fold path to good candidates: philosophy, personal narrative, and political competency.

“We need good solid candidates who are good on the playing field,” he continued. “We can’t take that nomination back if they fumble the ball in October.”

John Gizzi, a columnist at conservative Human Events magazine, concluded that the issue isn’t so much about who wins a knock-down, drag-out primary fight but how the party repairs itself in the aftermath.

“The argument is not so much about being for the party or against conservatives, but that those who were so upset about not nominating a particular candidate that they didn’t rally around their opponent,” Mr. Gizzi said.

This spirit of transition, of trying to find the sweet spot between tradition and change, was evident nearly everywhere at CPAC. An afternoon panel featured “millennial” young conservatives, and Cardenas highlighted the fact that “most” of the weekend’s emcees were under 35 while most of the panels featured much-older guests.  

The conference’s theme? “America’s Future: The Next Generation of Conservatives.” (Last year's was “We Still Hold These Truths.”)

The organizers thought through the new-kids-on-the-block theme. The Top 40 pop music that filled interludes between speakers on the main stage (Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida bounded on stage to the tween anthem “What Makes You Beautiful,” by One Direction) was a far cry from, say, the golden oldies mixes played at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., last September.

But as with any generational handover, the transitions weren’t always smooth.

As four white men filed onto the main stage Thursday to discuss America’s military engagements, the hit song “Some Nights” by Fun piped through the speakers. But as the nervous, under 35-emcee haltingly urged the panelists to take their seats, the song lingered a bit longer than anticipated, hitting its chorus: “I'm still not sure what I stand for. What do I stand for? What do I stand for? Most nights, I don't know anymore."

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