Life of the Grand Old Party

The "Growth & Opportunity Project" commissioned by the Republican National Committee following the 2012 presidential election was supposed to be the party's blueprint for a rebound back to power.

The 97-page document – more commonly and grimly known as "the autopsy" – was a noble, ambitious enterprise that listed a series of specific recommendations for how the GOP could improve its campaign mechanics, messaging, candidate recruitment and fundraising. No priority was greater than making inroads on demographic diversity: increasing the party's appeal to minorities, women and youth. After Mitt Romney's loss, despite the support of traditional GOP coalitions like white men and evangelical Christians, it was deemed a matter of survival.

"Unless the RNC gets serious about tackling this problem, we will lose future elections," the report's authors warned.

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In many cases, the recommendations in what RNC Chairman Reince Priebus called "the most comprehensive postelection review" in electoral history were pursued – at least to some extent.

"Whether it's a complete 'check the box' here, or that we did positive action to achieving that recommendation, I think that we did that on almost everything," says Ryan Mahoney, the RNC's deputy communications director.

But nearly four years after its submission, a U.S. News investigation – which included interviews with more than three dozen Republicans at all levels across the country – shows that some of the most significant changes sought, particularly on demographic outreach, haven't come to pass.

And the emergence of Donald Trump is not wholly to blame – though it is a significant factor and the reason cited by one of the report's authors, Sally Bradshaw, for leaving the party.

The report touched off a flurry of hiring and enthusiasm, which led its authors to praise the RNC in a one-year checkup published in March of 2014. They commended the committee for its progress on data and digital initiatives and for national and state-based hires it had made.

But as the party turned toward another turbulent presidential election, it appeared to lose some of the focus and precision demanded by the report to address the deep demographic hole it had dug itself into.

"There was never any discussion, 'Well, we're going to implement 83 percent of recommendations' or anything like that," says Henry Barbour of Mississippi, one of the autopsy's authors. "There's some things that might be a little pie in the sky and there's some things that are really practical and had been done on a smaller scale and we wanted to see it grown."

A high level of staffing turnover has hurt the committee's efforts to follow through on report recommendations, and even to track whether things have been implemented. Turnover is common in the taxing business of politics. But in the past year, there's been a significant RNC exodus of minority staffers, highlighted by the loss of the head of Hispanic media relations and all five top-ranking black staffers.

During interviews only agreed to on background, many newer RNC staff members revealed they didn't know the status of particular recommendations inside their departments. And one RNC official admitted there hasn't been continuity on relaying the priorities of the 2012 report to new hires.

"There's not any like, 'Here's your first day, here's the Growth and Opportunity report.' It's more like, a lot of these people, their positions exist primarily because of the Growth and Opportunity report," the RNC source says.

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Meanwhile, key staffing benchmarks – like the hiring of minority communications directors and political directors in battleground states – have not been met. And many at the grass-roots level remain disengaged or disillusioned with party leaders, and are confused about the overarching message.

This is where the emergence of Trump further complicated the task.

Achieving any unity on comprehensive immigration reform – one of the report's most ambitious and advertised goals – was torpedoed once Trump built his movement, leaving the RNC to de-emphasize policy in favor of tactics and organizational muster.

"The RNC wanted to give the perception they were doing something," says Ron Christie, a black GOP political consultant who served as a special assistant to President George W. Bush. "Actions speak louder than words. I wish they had spent more time merging policy with a political campaign rather than penning a postmortem."

Winning, sometimes, can inhibit the urgency to act as well. And win the GOP did in the 2014 congressional midterms, posting a gain of nine Senate seats to wrest chamber control from the Democrats and adding 13 seats to its already robust House majority. That year, the RNC notes, the GOP captured 50 percent of the Asian vote.

"A lot of people in my party have been whistling past the graveyard, saying we did OK in 2014, and letting the strength of some of our state parties fool us that we are strong nationally," says Daniel Ruoss, southern regional vice chairman of the Young Republicans.

But a White House victory was always the ultimate target, and many Republicans are dour about whether they'll see much improvement, if any, with minorities at the ballot box this year. Indeed, they're likely to experience a slide.

According to the latest Economist/YouGov survey, Trump is winning just 23 percent of the Hispanic vote – 4 points behind Romney – 37 percent of the female vote – 7 points behind Romney – and 3 percent of the black vote (Romney won only 6 percent in a contest against the country's first black president, while President George W. Bush captured 11 percent of the black vote in his 2004 re-election).

"I think everything that was a mechanical piece the party did," says Ari Fleischer, the former White House press secretary for Bush and an autopsy author. "What's not happened is the bigger, more important component, which is the message. What has not been done is what the candidate is responsible for. Donald Trump has not been welcoming and inclusive as recommended in the report."

Perhaps due to a combination of these complicating factors, several RNC officials were leery about talking to U.S. News on the record about specific benchmarks and their progress toward them, though they insist such things were tracked internally in the past.

But now, on the brink of another potential presidential defeat in a campaign that alsothreatens their congressional majorities, the GOP's resurrection effort looks like it's largely dead in the water.

What They Didn't Do

One of the guiding principles of the autopsy was that in order to court more Hispanics, Asians and African-Americans, the party's faces needed to reflect them.

That's why the No. 1 recommendation listed under each specific demographic in the autopsy was to hire minority communications directors and political directors for key states across the country.

That hasn't happened.

Instead, the party has turned its resources to employing lower-level field operators – who focus their time on phone banking or canvassing goals rather than leading the overarching charge – dedicated to the task of minority outreach. In 11 battleground states identified by the RNC, the committee says it has 104 staffers devoted to African-American engagement, 76 devoted to Hispanic engagement and nine devoted to Asian-American engagement.

Florida has the biggest Hispanic-dedicated staff, totaling 37. Thirty-five staffers in Ohio are dedicated to African-American outreach, the highest of any state.

The RNC says 17 percent of its total field staff – including 4,500 youth volunteers – is Hispanic. Eleven percent is African-American and 6 percent is Asian.

But the committee decided that the top recommendation – integrating high-level minority personnel into states on a widespread level – either wasn't possible or wasn't imperative. There is an RNC communications director who is Hispanic in Colorado and one who is Filipino in Florida.

"We have communications directors in each of these states, not Hispanic-centric communication directors in these states. I don't know if that's necessarily something that needs to be done," Mahoney says.

It's a goal they may never have reached, even if they'd tried. Last month, Wadi Gaitan – a Hispanic and chief spokesman of the Florida Republican Party – resigned, fed up with having to defend Trump.

Bettina Inclan, the RNC's director of Hispanic outreach in 2012, says the top recommendations to hire minority directors missed the point, in that it's more important to have effective managers who hit their targets for contacting voters than to make hires based solely on ethnicity.

Besides, she says, there are only so many people qualified for those jobs.

"In a perfect world I'd have as many people as possible, as diverse as possible, that are bilingual and can reach out to those communities. But I think the most important thing is that we're meeting the metrics and talking to people, rather than anyone's one job title," Inclan says. "I think we get hung up on, 'Does someone have this title?' And I think it should be, 'Does someone have this priority?'"

To better appeal to women, the report recommended exploring changes to the RNC's committee member process so more women would be placed in leadership roles. Indications point to that being left to the dustbin.

Additionally, the RNC has scrapped tenets of the autopsy's recommendations regarding youth. It does not advertise in college newspapers and has evaluated pitching party surrogates to college media as a bad investment. Shortly after the 2014 elections, it disbanded its youth advisory committee, transitioned new hire Elliott Echols out of his role as national youth director, and has squashed quarterly discussions between young voters and Priebus or another notable Republican.

The youth efforts were distilled into a new entity headed by Echols and called theRepublican Leadership Initiative. The party says the program paves the way for young Republicans to engage with local GOP groups in their communities, instead of their having to take time off from school to work with operatives in Washington. More than 4,500 fellows have completed a six-week training program as part of the initiative and are now an integral part of localized get-out-the-vote efforts, the RNC says.

Yet some inside the party say the program hasn't done much to widen the GOP tent.

Echols "attended a lot of Young Republican and College Republican events," says a 20-something press secretary working on a campaign in a battleground state who is familiar with the program. "But those people were already Republicans. He didn't do anything to bring in new people."

The RNC declined a U.S. News request to speak to Echols about the change of strategy.

A Local Disconnect

Republicans at the grass-roots level complain there hasn't been a united effort to convince local branches of the party to implement the autopsy's demographic recommendations, creating an uneven national framework.

"It doesn't seem like there was really any kind of plan to go to the states and go to the local level and say, 'Here, here's what works. Implement this," Ruoss says. "A lot of these people that hold local party positions, they've been there for a long time. They're used to doing things the same old way."

In Florida, 31-year-old Elizabeth Granite decided to run for state committeewoman in St. Johns County after working with local Republican parties in several Florida counties for a decade. She says she was told by Republican Executive Committee members in various counties that she was too young, that she should wait her turn and that millennials don't belong in office.

She went on to win anyway, and says the opposition only strengthened her commitment to supporting young Republicans running in the state.

"Young Republicans are feared," she says of her intraparty experience.

The autopsy also recommended the formation of a new Growth & Opportunity Inclusion Council that would work "to develop statewide initiatives designed to expand and diversify the base" of state parties. But the RNC moved instead toward a more siloed approach, creating national Hispanic, African-American and Asian-Pacific advisory councils, along with various state advisory councils.

On Asian-American outreach, Jason Chung is the RNC's point man with local leaders and has earned plaudits for keeping a consistent and direct line of communication.

Chung, a Virginia resident, often holds listening sessions in Asian communities inside Fairfax County, Virginia – one of the richest counties in the U.S. and home to twice the proportion of immigrants as the national share – to get a feel for their pressing issues. He also shows up at swearing-in ceremonies to introduce new U.S. citizens to the Republican Party, as recommended by the report.

"It shows that we are an inclusive party and we are not what those in the media or others might portray us as," he says.

But as with many of the recommendations, there wasn't a centralized strategy for deploying party reps to such events. Mahoney says teams were never formally organized and dedicated to the goal as the report suggested. Instead, who attended and how often was up to local parties, local RNC staffers and their availability – an approach that still netted 40,000 new voters over the past year at hundreds of naturalization ceremonies. The return on voter registrations was small, the RNC concedes – yet it's a result that could have been bolstered by a more concerted effort.

An original recommendation for the inclusion council, meanwhile, was for it to conduct "nationwide grass-roots educational programs through symposiums, lectures and forums," but there's little evidence that level of sustained engagement is taking place via the RNC's alternative advisory groups.

Puneet Ahluwalia, a member of Virginia's Asian-American and Pacific Islander Advisory Council, says his group holds "occasional conference calls" with allied community leaders but couldn't recall the names of any of the four RNC field staffers dedicated to Asian outreach in the commonwealth.

"They have one lady working on the ground with the RNC. It kind of escapes me at this point," he says.

Names escaped Jim Cheng, another member of the Virginia council, as well.

"I don't know the names of the folks who have been hired," he says. "For me, it's mostly through Jason and getting the updates of what's going on."

This points to a scattered, highly informal effort that is powered by Chung at RNC headquarters but lacks robust, persistent action at the local level. And in Virginia, that chasm could be costly, given the competitive trajectory of the presidential race there.

"Putting your arms around it is very hard," Ahluwalia says of Virginia's varied Asian population, which includes Chinese, Filipino and Korean communities, among others. "Each community has a need and a desire. It's a big bear to do it."

Though it requires a delicate balance, expanding the party brand also is tied to showing up when bad news emerges or tensions are raw – in the aftermath of a police shooting, for example, or during a Black Lives Matter march.

But "we're just not there. There's not a Republican there," Ruoss says. "There's not a county party leader who's showing up to these things and saying, 'Hey look, we want to be engaged with you' ... just showing that we actually care enough to show up."

In battleground Florida, GOP leaders say the party has shown up, and has had a presence at 500 Hispanic community events since 2013 – whether that means a single staffer or elected official attending a festival celebrating Colombian independence or setting up a voter registration table at a Nicaraguan heritage festival. Nationwide, the RNC says it's had a presence at 3,700 minority-specific events since 2013.

Florida State Sen. Anitere Flores, chair of the state's Hispanic Advisory Council, says her group convenes by phone four times a year, and that's an increased level of engagement and improvement itself.

But will a greater number of Hispanics pull ballots for Republicans this year?

"No, I don't think anybody can say that," Flores says. "We'll measure success by not just percentages of turnout. I think the success will be measured on races up and down the ballot. There are some major challenges when it comes to Trump."

Indeed, smooth and seamless coordination between local parties and the national campaign has become even more problematic with Trump's ascendance, due to the nominee's haphazard and uneven organization.

But that's likely not what Flores meant. When asked if she would vote for the GOP nominee, she pauses and says, "Can you not ask me that question?"

In other words, the head of a GOP Hispanic outreach effort in the closest battleground state in 2012 could not say whether she would vote for her party's presidential nominee in 2016.

There's not a white paper recommendation in the world that can overcome that.

Wrong From the Start

Last month, Ashley Bell, the RNC's new national director of African-American political engagement, appeared on Roland Martin's "NewsOne Now" program as part of his media tour touting a game plan to attract more black voters to the GOP banner.

Martin, an aggressive interviewer with a progressive bent, posed a thorny question for Bell: "How can Republicans talk about competing for black votes when the party in different states ... has tried to suppress the vote?"

Martin cited the flurry of Republican-led states that have imposed voter identification laws and a GOP congressman's resistance to refurbishing the Voting Rights Act. He told Bell he'd like to see Priebus tell the obstructor, Virginia's Bob Goodlatte, to "stop blocking the bill."

Bell's answer, essentially, was that there was nothing the RNC could do.

"That's not our job, we don't do policy. We do politics at the RNC," he replied.

Martin wasn't buying it, and the resulting headline on the NewsOne website after the interview was brutal: "RNC Grilled About Flawed Plan To Woo Black Voters."

The autopsy report said the RNC should emphasize GOP-backed policies that could unite voters, such as education initiatives attractive to young voters, economic ideas that would find favor with Asian-Americans and the party's support for school choice, which could help win over Hispanics.

Yet the committee's inability or refusal to weigh in on certain policy fights is one of the biggest barriers the party faces in trying to build trust with minorities, even though it certainly has chosen its battles before. For instance, when Priebus embarked on a listening tour of the country in 2013, he routinely plied African-American leaders for their thoughts on criminal justice reform – a topic that's gained bipartisan support of late.

And just ahead of the Republican National Convention, the party adopted a platform that hearkened back to its 2012 statement and mentioned modifying mandatory minimum sentences for drug and nonviolent offenses, along with diverting nonviolent offenders from prison. RNC staffers highlighted this area as a tangible sign of policy-related progress.

Still, critics say the RNC should weigh more heavily into policy debates on Capitol Hill by coordinating with congressional leaders and committees.

Raynard Jackson – a longtime African-American political consultant based in Washington – contends that black RNC staffers have virtually no relationship with congressional leaders, making it difficult for them to push the importance of embracing issues on the minds of black voters, like voting rights and affordable housing.

Telling black voters you can't influence policy, in other words, is the equivalent of trying to sell a car missing an engine.

"If the RNC can't tie policy in with our congressional leadership and then go into the black community ... They don't make the connection," chides Jackson, who says he is now in litigation with the committee over rights to an event for black Republicans he helped get off the ground. "The RNC is totally incapable. It's going to be people like me from the outside."

Christie agrees that policy must take priority over meeting any staffing quotas, and was critical of the emphasis on minority hiring from the start.

"Placing X number of press directors or Y number of political directors in key states isn't going to do it," Christie says. "You have to coordinate policy with politics and vice versa. Talk about how your education plan is going to make a difference. Talk about why an immigration bill will stem illegal immigration and allow more people to have jobs."

Christie says the RNC should follow the template that Gov. John Kasich of Ohio used in his re-election bid: Stand by your core beliefs, just explain how they lift all boats.

"One of the things I think they missed is to connect with people as people rather than connect with people on the skin color," he says. "I've said this for a long time: Stop talking to black people like they're black people."

But tone is an ongoing challenge for Republican leadership. When Trump announced his candidacy based in part on the premise that many Mexicans were criminals, drug runners and rapists, most GOP leaders looked the other way, even though it directly contradicted the spirit of the autopsy report.

Artemio Muniz, a GOP activist in Texas, says he received a personal promise from Priebus during the chairman's listening tour that he would speak out against anyone who engaged in rhetoric harmful to Hispanic engagement. An RNC spokeswoman confirmed Priebus made this pledge, and claims he kept it.

Yet while Priebus has called Trump's comments about Mexicans "not helpful" and reportedly asked the GOP nominee during a phone conversation to tone his rhetoric down a bit, his reaction came off as less a strident condemnation than a half-hearted shoulder shrug.

Muniz says Priebus didn't have the guts to follow through when it mattered most.

"I think that was a huge failed test for the RNC and for Reince Priebus," Muniz says. "Just publishing a report doesn't really – now we see that it doesn't help. You gotta stand by what you publish. You gotta stand by it. You gotta fight for it. You gotta be aggressive.

"I think they should've kept their word and spoke out."

An Uncertain Future

What happens in November is for the election gods to decide. But it's more likely than not that Republicans will lose their third straight bid for the White House. And it's more likely than not that the party will perform extremely poorly with minorities and women.

Michael Fauntroy, an associate professor of political science at Howard University, recently suggested Trump could end up with historically low support among black voters.

"If he comes out at about 2 or 3 percent, that's a third to a half of what Barry Goldwater got in 1964," Fauntroy said. "I think that speaks to just how deep a hole he has created for himself."

Still, it's a loss – albeit a painful, soul-crushing one – that might spur a more dramatic round of action and urgency going forward. At least that's what the reform-minded contingent of the Republican Party hopes.

"We're jumping off the cliff again, and election night we're going to have Sean Hannity again like he did last time crying about, 'Maybe we should do immigration reform cuz we got our asses kicked!' That's going to happen again. It could happen again where the only way we realize we're messing up is until we lose, and it's sad really because we have so much positive stuff that we can work with and really win the hearts and minds of the Hispanic community," Muniz says. "I think it's slowly happening, and I think it's going to happen even faster once we see the disastrous results on election night with the Hispanic community for the GOP."

Maria Teresa Kumar, president of the nonprofit Voto Latino, said recently at a Brookings Institution event that Republicans have to undergo "a cleansing ... a tsunami election of opposition to Trump so that the [GOP] can actually say, 'This is not something that is good.'"

To be sure, the RNC did complete some autopsy initiatives that can be built upon.

Between 2013 and 2014, as the report recommended, the committee set up pilot projects in cities holding mayoral races like Detroit, San Diego and Albuquerque, New Mexico, to identify better practices for reaching minority voters.

The RNC says the operations helped localize its pitch and expand outreach beyond traditional door-knocking and phone banking to attendance at local events already integrated into the community, and that they resulted in an increase in the GOP share of the minority vote in each race.

Well-oiled programs aimed at pinpointing the next generation of talent also are churning along outside the RNC, doing their work exclusive of the report's recommendations. For example, the Republican State Leadership Committee – dedicated to getting down-ballot, state-level Republicans in office – has helped elect 73 diverse candidates since 2012. Right Women, Right Now, an offshoot group of the RSLC, has helped elect 229 women to state-level office during the last four years.

And Priebus has been conscientious about engaging with organizations that represent people of color, attending events like the National Association of Black Journalists convention, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials conference and the 50th anniversary of the march on Selma, Alabama.

Yet there are glaring breakdowns. Hilary Shelton, Washington bureau director for the NAACP – an organization specifically highlighted by the autopsy as one where the RNC should "establish a presence" – says post-report relations "began very well."

But he says efforts ceased about a year ago, especially after black staffers like Kristal Quarker Hartsfield, national director of African-American strategic initiatives, and Orlando Watson, communications director for black media, left the RNC. The group heard second- and thirdhand that the approach touted in the report had been axed. Trump, for his part,snubbed the NAACP when he declined an invitation to speak at its annual convention.

"The sadness in this is that they seem to abandon those programs," Shelton says. "They don't recognize that you have to give new programs at least as much time to repair breaches as it took to create them."

Christie, the GOP operative who in the past appeared frequently on television as part of the RNC's surrogate program, says he hasn't heard much from the committee since Watson left his post earlier this year. The newest four hires dedicated to the black vote just came on in August.

"Perhaps they don't like the message I'm carrying," he says.

Jackson complains the committee isn't tapping former African-American government officials with White House, Capitol Hill and business experience to spread the word.

"There's a lot of good black Republicans just sitting on the sidelines," he says. "No one from the RNC would return their phone calls. When you get down to the issue of getting more blacks, it's so far down on the totem poll. They're not worried about five to 10 years down the road, they're worried about the next quarter."

In fact, when Jackson put out word that he had organized a group of black Republicans willing to speak to the media at the national convention, an intermediary received an abrupt reply.

"I don't have any need for them," Ryan Price, an adviser to the convention's Committee on Arrangements, wrote back to the source, according to an email exchange shared with U.S. News.

Christie says he already has had conversations with a prominent black operative who wants to organize another postmortem analysis around the spring Republican Governors Association meeting, gathering a wider net of voices from academia and policy circles, as well as from politics, to prescribe a path forward.

As for the last report, the RNC's failure to produce few measurable gains wasn't due to inherent neglect or disregard, but occurred rather because the party itself was at odds over what really should change in the first place. Disagreements within about which solutions would be the most useful highlight an enduring disconnect between the party elites, the campaign workers tasked with making these lofty goals a reality and the restless grass-roots.

RNC officials maintain the most profound impact of the report has been a change in culture. Now, in every political equation, the needs of African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian-Americans are considered.

So will this year's presidential election be the ultimate test of the autopsy's success?

"I wouldn't say that it's the ultimate test," replies Mahoney, downplaying expectations. "Election Day will tell."

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