Conservatives balk at RNC’s ideas on immigration, presidential primary

March 18, 2013

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus's new plan for the future of the Republican Party is earning generally positive marks, with big-name Republicans praising it and even some tea party backers on-board.

But for a party divided, the report doesn't look likely to quickly bridge the gap between the establishment and the more conservative elements of the party. And some conservatives are already balking over the plan's call for comprehensive immigration reform and its changes to the GOP presidential primary process.

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich said the Growth and Opportunity Project report and Priebus's remarks were right to focus on the GOP's success at the state level, where the party holds 30 governorships.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), while not yet weighing in on the specifics, also praised his fellow Wisconsinite.

Proud of @reince and his @gop team for their leadership. Eager to read the full Growth & #Opportunity report: growthopp.gop.com — Paul Ryan (@PRyan) March 18, 2013

The conservative Club for Growth, which has supported more conservative GOP candidates in primaries and frequently been a thorn in the side of the establishment in recent months, declined to comment on the report. But conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh reportedly bad-mouthed the plan.

Jenny Beth Martin, the head of the Tea Party Patriots, joined in the criticism.

“Americans and those in the tea party movement don’t need an ‘autopsy’ report from RNC to know they failed to promote our principles, and lost because of it," Martin said.

At the same time, the tea party wing of the GOP also offered some praise. Sal Russo, the co-founder of the Tea Party Express, praised Priebus for urging his party to reach out to groups that aren't core GOP constituencies and to focus less on austerity and more on economic improvement.

"Obviously, there were things like improving our tech skills and changing the presidential primary schedule that are technically important, but the two points I was most gratified to see were the two I mentioned," Russo said.

While the report was more focused on those technical steps and broad goals, there was the one major policy prescription: comprehensive immigration reform. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a major proponent of that goal, praised the committee for codifying it.

If there's anything in the report that is likely to inflame the conservative base, though, it could be the comprehensive immigration reform piece. Graham and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) have increasingly found themselves pitted against the newer generation of conservative Republicans, many who may balk at the idea of a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

Conservative blogger Michelle Malkin hit Priebus's report for embracing that goal.

Another area where non-establishment Republicans may have a problem with the RNC report is in its technical changes to the GOP primary calendar, including a condensed primary season, fewer debates and a move toward primaries rather than caucuses.

Such changes, while ostensibly designed to reduce the damage and cost to whomever emerges as the eventual nominee, also could hurt insurgent candidates, some argue.

One adviser to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) predicted that the "move away from caucuses and conventions will be highly controversial for the Paul world, tea partiers and social conservatives."

Paul's father, Ron Paul, did much better in caucus states, where a smaller but more intense following can pay bigger dividends.

"The condensing of the primary calendar works to the advantage of candidates with established organizations in the early states, which would be primarily Jeb (Bush), (Marco) Rubio and Rand Paul," said the adviser, who was granted anonymity to offer a candid assessment.

Top GOP strategist Mike Murphy said that the party should welcome war over holding more primaries. But he also said that much remains to be done in the area of moderation.

(Update: Murphy says he meant to say "modernization" rather than "moderation.")

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix, the Post’s top political blog.
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