One week ago, the voting public roundly rejected Republicans at the presidential and Senate level and, while the party kept control of the House, it did so while winning fewer overall votes than Democrats.
Most GOP strategists and politicians acknowledge that the 2012 election amounted to a moment of reckoning for the party -- a time when Republicans finally came face to face with the demographic realities and base problems that badly jeopardize its future as a national majority party.
(There are some who argue that, had a few hundred thousand votes in Virginia, Florida and Ohio switched sides, then Mitt Romney would have been president and the talk of the necessity of overhauling the Republican brand would be nonexistent. Maybe. But that's like saying that if the Washington Nationals had held on to their six-run lead over the St. Louis Cardinals they might have been World Series champs. They didn't, and they aren't.)
Less clear is what the party needs to do in order to reverse a slide -- particularly at the presidential level -- that has been in progress since the 2006 midterm elections. We put the question of how the party begins to rebuild to a handful of smart GOP operatives and aggregated their four best thoughts below.
One other point before we get to it: Several strategists pointed to the Republican Governors Association annual meeting later this week in Las Vegas as the semi-official kickoff of that rebranding. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie -- two of the party's brighter stars -- will be chosen as co-chairs of the RGA at that meeting.
And away we go! Here's how to begin the reconstruction of the Republican party in four not-so-easy steps.
1. Stop running against things and start running for things: "We have entirely defined ourselves over the last several years as the 'not Obama' party," said Todd Harris, a veteran Republican consultant. "At the same time, few GOP candidates have given people any positive rationale to vote Republican, beyond that we're against Obama."
The 2010 midterm election -- seen through Harris's lens -- proved to be a bit of fool's gold for Republicans. After the whitewash election of 2006 and 2008, Republicans were on the verge of this reckoning in early 2009. But Obama's decision to push the economic stimulus, followed by the health care law, united Republicans around a common enemy. And the gains they made in 2010 affirmed that strategy for some of them.
Running simply as the "other guy" in a midterm election is very different than running to oust an incumbent in a presidential year, however. Voters expect some sort of positive vision from a party in a presidential year. They didn't get it in 2012 from Mitt Romney or the Republican Party more generally.
"We need to rethink our public policy," said one veteran GOP consultant granted anonymity to offer his candid assessment of the state of the party. "It seems that no matter what the problem is, the solution is a tax cut. That ain't gonna cut it on many issues."
2. Find a way into the Hispanic community: Perhaps the most daunting demographic data point coming out of the 2012 election was that Romney lost Hispanic voters nationwide by 44(!) points. Given the rapid growth of the Latino population -- and the relative youth of that community -- there are increasingly few paths to the presidency for Republicans unless they can reverse the party's downward spiral among Hispanics. (John McCain got 30 percent of the Latino vote in 2008, while George W. Bush won 44 percent in 2004 -- though some have suggested the latter number skewed high.)
"We have to stop closing the door on Hispanic voters," said Republican pollster Glen Bolger. "Without them, we can't win another national election." Harris pointed out that 50,000 Hispanic teenagers turn 18 (voting age) every month; "That means that every two months there are enough potential new Hispanic voters to make up Romney's losing margin in Ohio," he added.
What Republicans can do -- from a policy perspective -- to convince Hispanics that they are on their side is a bit murkier, although every Republican strategist we talked to insisted that the party needs to cut a deal on immigration reform -- a move that would allow a values conversation to happen. And that's a conversation GOPers believe they can win.
3. Innovate on voter contact: The 2012 election proved that the Obama campaign's neighbor-to-neighbor grassroots targeting and mobilization approach was vastly superior to the more traditional GOP turnout operation, which relies heavily on a series of automated phone calls to voters. (The failure of the Romney campaign's ORCA program simply highlighted the huge gap between Democrats and Republicans in terms of ground operation.)
"How do you spend a billion [dollars] and get less voters to the poll than 2008," asked Saul Anuzis, a former Michigan Republican party chairman and one-time candidate for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee. Added Steven Law, head of American Crossroads, a leading conservative outside organization: "The Obama campaign has lengthened the Democrats' lead over Republicans on modern list-building, connecting voter list development to social media engagement and online fundraising in powerful new ways."
4. Vet and select candidates in a more rigorous manner: The last two elections at the Senate level have exposed the problem with nominating the wrong person. In Nevada, Delaware and Colorado in 2010 and Indiana and Missouri in 2012, Senate Republicans got the least electable general election candidate out of the primary process and watched as five very winnable races were lost.
"We need to allow the party to do everything it can to stop sure losers from winning primaries," said Bolger. Law echoed that sentiment: "The one consistent refrain I'm hearing is the need to dramatically improve candidate quality, especially in the Senate. Republicans have an almost insurmountable hill to climb to retake the Senate in 2014, but they won't even get close unless we do a much better job of recruiting, vetting and selecting candidates."
That is, of course, easier said than done. In 2010, the National Republican Senatorial Committee tried to get involved in primaries for what who it believed to be the most electable candidates (Charlie Crist in Florida, Mike Castle in Delaware) only to see their support trigger a revolt in the conservative base. In 2012, the NRSC took a hands off approach -- and that didn't work either.
It remains to be seen whether the party establishment retains anything in its campaign toolkit that allows it to pick its preferred candidate and push them to victory.
Obama eyes Kerry for defense: President Obama is eyeing Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) as his next secretary of defense, rather than the role Kerry is said to covet, secretary of state.
Administration sources tell the Washington Post that United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice is likely to be tapped for secretary of state, while Kerry is more likely to be picked for defense. (Republicans have signaled they would resist Rice's appointment amidst controversy over her version of events in Benghazi, Libya.)
Hillary Clinton has said she will step down as secretary of state, while Leon Panetta is set to leave his post as defense secretary.
If Kerry were picked for either post, it would trigger a special election for his seat. Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), who just lost his reelection race last Tuesday, would be the GOP's first option in that race, while Democrats would likely have a plethora of candidates to choose from.
Romney's political director says his campaign's ground game was "fine," but Obama's team “did a better job of turnout than we thought they could do. They did alter the electorate.”
Romney won zero votes in some urban precincts in Philadelphia and Cleveland.
Former GOP Rep. Henry Bonilla (Texas) says his party would be "idiots" to not push for immigration reform after last week's election.
Arkansas Republican Reps. Tim Griffin and Steve Womack and Rep.-elect Tom Cotton all say they might challenge Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) in 2014. (Warning: Paywall.) Griffin said: "I'm not in a hurry. Whatever decision I will make in the future will involve a substantial amount of discussion with my wife and prayer, to be honest with you."
Several GOP names surface to challenge Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), and Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and 2010 nominee Joe Miller are making calls about it.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) suggests she will announce her future plans on Wednesday. It's not clear whether Pelosi will seek to stay in her leadership post.
House freshman orientation is beginning, even as some races remain unresolved.
Republican Jonathan Paton concedes to former congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.), who had already been projected as the winner of their open seat race.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) issues a statement saying he's against secession for his state.
"Pelosi considers stepping down as House Democratic leader" -- Paul Kane, Washington Post
"Petraeus told biographer to stop harassing family friend, officials say" -- Sari Horwitz and Scott Wilson, Washington Post
"Turnout Steady in Swing States and Down in Others, But Many Votes Remain Uncounted" -- Nate Silver, New York Times
"Petraeus ghostwriter ‘clueless’ to affair" -- Vernon Loeb, Washington Post
"Petraeus investigation ensnares commander of U.S., NATO troops in Afghanistan" -- Craig Whitlock, Washington Post
"5 things (other than the ‘fiscal cliff’) to watch during the lame-duck" -- Ed O'Keefe, Washington Post