By John McCormick
WASHINGTON — Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus has less than 19 months before his next major test, the 2014 elections, to turn around a party with a tarnished brand, skeptical consumers, revenue challenges and internal divisions.
"Their brand is frozen back in time, and today's voters are not buying it," said Karen Post, an author on rebranding who calls herself a "moderate" Republican. "Consumers have changed. Parties that win reflect contemporary values."
Priebus will conclude two days of meetings Friday in Los Angeles with the equivalent of his sales team — members of the Republican National Committee — for the first time since releasing a report highly critical of the party and its 2012 election efforts. He must convince them to live by the report's recommendations — something that has already proved difficult.
The party's "Growth and Opportunity Project" report, released March 18, called for a more inclusive tone when dealing with those who disagree with the Republican platform on abortion rights and same-sex marriage. Yet, since the report's distribution, two RNC members and a Republican member of Congress have triggered controversies because of rhetoric that didn't follow that recommendation.
Dave Agema, a Michigan RNC member, suggested that being gay is an unhealthy lifestyle as part of his posting on Facebook of another man's article that called homosexuality "filthy." Agema defended the posting as useful at a time that the Supreme Court is considering same-sex marriage cases, a position that has prompted calls for his resignation from some Michigan Republicans and critical statements from others.
"Our party remains in support of traditional marriage but that should never be allowed nor confused with any form of hate or discrimination toward anyone," Michigan Republican Party Chairman Bobby Schostak said in a statement.
Agema has rebuffed the calls for his resignation.
Priebus and other party leaders, including House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, also condemned remarks by Rep. Don Young of Alaska, who used an ethnic slur to talk about Hispanics his father hired to work on his California ranch decades ago. Young apologized for his comment.
And the leader of Georgia's Republican Party, Sue Everhart, drew criticism from Democrats when she suggested that legalizing same-sex marriage might trigger benefits and insurance fraud by heterosexuals claiming to be gay.
Terri Lynn Land, an RNC member from Michigan, said the controversy in her state over Agema's Facebook post serves as a reminder of the challenge Priebus faces.
"We have to keep a respectful tone," she said. "You just have to keep moving forward and respond when you have to respond."
Priebus has fewer weapons at his disposal to enforce the party's will than did prior chairmen. Fundraising, grass-roots organizing and turnout operations have increasingly been farmed out or overtaken by outside entities such as super political action committees, as is the case for Democrats.
Polling shows the depth of the Republican challenges. While both parties have relatively low approval ratings, Republicans are viewed more unfavorably these days than Democrats.
A CNN/ORC International poll released March 18 showed 54 percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of the Republican Party, compared with 48 percent for the Democratic Party. Two- thirds said Republicans favor the rich, and nearly half think the party's policies are too extreme.
A Gallup poll conducted March 20-21 showed one in five Americans, when asked to say what they most dislike about the party, think the Republicans are too inflexible and unwilling to compromise. The number is even higher — 26 percent — among registered Republicans, highlighting displeasure within the party.
Although changes to policy positions held by the party weren't the focus of the Priebus post-election report, it did call for Republicans to "embrace and champion comprehensive" revisions to immigration law to improve their image with Hispanics, the nation's fastest growing voting bloc. "If we do not, our party's appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only," the report said.
Ahead of Thursday's gathering, Priebus announced that the party was hiring two Asians to work toward better reaching out to a population that gave Obama 73 percent of the 2012 vote. Additional hires of Hispanics and blacks are also expected to be announced this week.
Post, the author on branding, said that for Republicans to change voter attitudes and appeal to a broader base they'll need to show evidence of being a new and "relevant" party.
"They need some new rock stars that are visible and look like this broader base," she said.
Yet amid the calls for change, RNC leaders are also moving to reassure the party's base that they don't intend to change bedrock tenets. Land said the RNC's Resolutions Committee will consider a document affirming the party's platform core values, including the "sanctity of human life," the right to keep and bear arms and that marriage should be between a man and woman.
Democrats are closely watching Republican efforts to rehabilitate their party. In an interview in Bloomberg's Washington Bureau on March 27, Jim Messina, President Barack Obama's 2012 campaign manager, said Republicans won't find success until they change their policy positions.
"We didn't win because we had tech and data," Messina said. "We increased our margin and we probably won a couple states, but we won because people sided with Barack Obama on the issues and people made a decision to move towards him."