Republicans found themselves gazing into an electoral abyss Wednesday, registering the full impact of a 2012 election that exposed crippling weaknesses in the party's political infrastructure and demographic appeal.
The takeaway among party leaders was virtually unanimous: The GOP faces a years-long challenge of reaching out to Americans beyond its predominantly white, male base and updating a voter turnout machine that's woefully out of date.
Exactly how to do that is a tougher question, Republicans acknowledged. In any case, there's broad agreement that it will take national leadership from a charismatic politician -- Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's name came up repeatedly -- to begin the process of bouncing back.
Only a revived national party -- currently a fractured institution, with power divided between traditional organizations like the Republican National Committee, the two chambers of Congress and a host of separately funded outside groups -- can address the structural problems that doomed Republicans Tuesday night, GOP leaders said.
"It's a wake-up call. It's a wake-up call," Ohio Sen. Rob Portman said of the party's trouncing this week.
West Virginia Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, who's considering a Senate bid in 2014, said Republicans had to confront the reality that they're "not diversified like the country" and risked losing women voters and minorities in future cycles.
"It's a broader issue than women just being concerned about abortion. There's a concern that people in the Republican Party want to intervene in the choices women have," Capito said. "The candidates reflect the predominant members of our party. If we're going to be a party of a big tent, we can't keep leaving people out. We're not diversified like the country."
She cited her 27-year-old daughter, saying that women that age just don't accept "any limitation of their choices."
And Virginia Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, Mitt Romney's state chairman in the Old Dominion and a candidate for governor in 2013, acknowledged that Republican "voter identification and mobilization ... didn't produce the kind of results that we thought it would produce."
"We did not get the voter turnout that we anticipated getting," Bolling said. "We have got to do a better job reaching out to women, to Latinos, to young voters. And if we don't do that, we're going to have a hard time winning elections on a national level."
What began on election night as a sense of shock -- Republicans recognized Barack Obama might win reelection, but few expected an Electoral College blowout -- deepened into something more depressive on Wednesday as the sweep of the party's defeat became clear.
Many senior Republicans genuinely believed, going into the election Tuesday, that their voter identification and turnout capabilities would be equal to the task of beating Obama. Internal GOP polling showed the race balanced on a knife's edge in swing states, with hard-fought contests across the Senate map, as well.
Romney campaign and RNC officials confidently boasted that they had constructed a more elaborate get-out-the-vote operation than any in history and dismissed Obama's lead in early voting as a misguided Democratic attempt to run up the scoreboard in advance at the cost of their vote totals on Election Day.
Nothing could have been further from reality. Obama's base turned out at a rate that swamped GOP turnout efforts and polling models. New voters, minority voters and young voters turned up at the polls, with Obama's early-voting edge holding up in states like Ohio and Florida. The down-ballot consequences were dramatic, not only taking down Republican Senate candidates but also flipping legislative chambers in Minnesota, Maine and Colorado back to the Democrats.
Republican State Leadership Committee President Chris Jankowski, whose group supports GOP candidates in non-federal elections, put it this way: "We ran into what I would describe as a buzz saw of Democrat-driven Hispanic turnout that was all about the top of the ticket but it caught us down ballot."
To get past that obstacle, Jankowski said Republicans need "the immigration debate ... to be addressed and settled in a way the Republican Party can live with." They also need leadership at the national level to strengthen party infrastructure, he said.
"We have to come to terms with our tactical operations capability and the fact that it's just not where it should be on a national basis -- that our high-water mark was the Bush-Cheney '04 operation," Jankowski said. "2012 was about as close to a fair fight as you get, and we lost on operations and tactics. There's no getting around that."
Outgoing Colorado House Speaker Frank McNulty, whose caucus lost power amid a sizable Obama win in the state, agreed. "We had no reason to believe that the Obama machine had gone dormant. It's alive and well, and they were devastatingly effective."
"I don't think that we can expect to create in six months what they've created over six years," McNulty said. "We need to have a national figure step to the front and identify this as a priority and continue through with it. Whether the chairman is able to do that -- I hope that's the case. But it's not something that we can do state by state.
Republican strategist Brad Todd praised the RNC's field effort but said there had to be a more fundamental transition in turnout methods to reflect the reality that Election Day itself is only the last day voting takes place.
"Everyone is in agreement that the old Bush model has to be thrown out," said Todd of the vaunted "72-hour plan" of 2004. "We have to stop accepting being behind in the early vote. We have to treat [the] early vote like it's the first half of the football game."
"A lot of people said [the Obama campaign] couldn't duplicate what they did in '08. They did it," said Republican Party of Florida Chairman Lenny Curry, who also called it essential for Republicans to study the Obama campaign's turnout efforts and "figure out a way to be relevant to diverse communities."
Yet Republicans have long called it an imperative to improve their position among minority voters, to little avail. George W. Bush won 44 percent of the Latino and Asian-American vote in his 2004 reelection campaign, but Democrats have otherwise coasted with those groups.
Portman said that if they didn't do so now, they simply wouldn't get to 50-plus-one.
"We need to reach beyond our base without sacrificing our core values, and it can be done," he said. "I believe there is a common sense conservative majority in swing states like Ohio, but it's a more diverse group than the GOP base. To get less than 30 percent of the Hispanic vote and less than eight percent of the African-American vote shows the potential we have to reach out with an inclusive message of fiscal conservatism, pro-growth policies to help small business and a renewed emphasis on the opportunity society."
But some in the party are already pondering immediate steps they can take on the symbolic front. One longtime GOP hand in Washington floated Wednesday the idea of a high-profile party post for Mia Love, the African-American woman who won significant buzz this election but lost her House race in Utah.
Yet short of cutting a deal on immigration that much of the party would oppose bitterly -- or nominating a Latino candidate for president -- Republicans are short on tangible plans for expanding their demographic reach.
Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, pointed to the Senate in general and Rubio individually as the party's promising actors on immigration.
"An immigration deal is something the Senate needs to take the lead on. You've got Rubio there to take the lead on it. You're not going to get the House to do it until they know the Senate is serious," Cole said. "You can't get the votes you need in the House if they think they're going to go out and bleed and die as the Senate sits and twiddles their thumbs."
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, agreed that it's time for a deal on immigration reform, but added: "I feel very strongly it has to start with border control and enforcement."
"Marco Rubio and others will be leaders on that issue," he said.
Yet the Senate is only one of the competing power centers across the party, now that the White House is out of reach for at least another four years. GOP governors believe it's their moment to take over in a fashion similar to that after Bob Dole's 1996 shellacking, the congressional leadership, particularly in the House, think they'll lead the opposition and youthful conservatives like Rubio and Paul Ryan are also looking to assert themselves in the lead-up to 2016.
"Unquestionably, the future leaders and candidate for president are going to come from the ranks of the governors," said McDonnell. "More importantly, leadership on policy will come from the governors; we're the ones doing the most to help create jobs. We get stuff done."
More pessimistic Republicans agreed that the party faces fundamental challenges but questioned whether it would make necessary, painful changes while much of the GOP base is enveloped in an parallel-universe mentality, with Fox News as its only trusted source of information and the memory of the 2010 conservative landslide as its basic framework for understanding politics.
Throughout much of the general election, Republican activists and pundits were more prone to attack the sampling methods of public polls than to consider the possibility that they'd face a historically diverse, unexpectedly Democratic-leaning electorate on Nov. 6. That mind-set of denial collided with objective reality yesterday.
"The conservative media bubble is totally self-defeating for us. It denies us any realistic view of the real world of the general election, assuming instead that all politics is simply an extension of the Republican primary. It blindly drives us off one cliff after another," said Republican presidential strategist Mike Murphy. "We will not win the real world of big-turnout, presidential-year politics until our bubble realizes that a big world exists outside the precincts of the Republican primary."
Said Murphy: "Much of the conservative media bubble, with its isolation, denial and semi-paranoia, only incentivized us to lose general elections."
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