Today, Ed Gillespie and Republican Govs. Brian Sandoval (Nevada) and Susana Martinez (New Mexico) held a press conference call on behalf of the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), which helps recruit, train and elect Republicans in state offices. The RSLC is announcing its expansion of the “Future Majority Caucus” (FMC), an effort to elect more minority and female Republicans at the state level.
RSLC chairman Gillespie acknowledged that the FMC gained only a net one Hispanic state legislator in 2012, but in a bad election year for Republicans, it nevertheless added 125 Hispanics to its field of candidates. As for women, the FMC identified 191 new female candidates and got elected 84 new Republican women.
Martinez made the case: “There’s a need for the Republican Party to significantly increase its outreach to women and minority candidates, like someone did for me.” She argued that the solution to the GOP’s problem with women and minorities is not going to be found “at a conference table or a focus group in Washington, D.C.” The premise, as the three Republicans said, is that candidates who “look like” their communities will garner more support.
Every question from mainstream reporters on the call was some variation on “Isn’t immigration a problem?” or “How does the immigration debate impact Republicans’ ability to earn Hispanic support?” Martinez and the others applauded Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s immigration reform efforts. It didn’t seem to satisfy the media that, as Martinez put it, “No single issue will define a political party.”
There was much talk not only about what Republicans say, but how they say it. Martinez said, “We need to be careful about our tone and really listen.” Gillespie acknowledged, “How we talk about immigration is important.”
Although he said minority turnout in off-year elections is less than in presidential years, he predicted minority turnout in 2014 would be higher than in 2010. He reaffirmed that in an increasingly diverse electorate the GOP must do better with women and minorities. “We’ve been a little behind the curve,” he conceded.
I spoke with Gillespie later in the day by phone to ask him about the differences between state- and federal-level Republican efforts. Why are Republicans and minority Republicans doing better at the state level than at the federal in recent years? Gillespie answered, “National races — and a national president race — are much more polarizing. Democrats have used that to their advantage at the national level.” Indeed, by characterizing the opposition as extreme, out of touch, mean-spirited and anti-immigrant, Democrats have been spared the trouble of defending their records or coming up with results that help various segments of the electorate. At the state level, however, an issue like education plays well with and for Republicans, Gillespie argued.
Not unlike what House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said in his speech this week, Gillespie stressed that for Republicans, “A reform agenda is helpful.” He recalled when Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell ran in 2009 he promised to make Virginia the “easiest place to open a business.” In short, Gillespie contended, “The issue set at the state level is a little easier for conservatives.” (National Republicans seem to agree and are trying to incorporate more bread-and-butter issues at the national level.)
So far, electing more Hispanic leaders like Rubio, Martinez and Sandoval hasn’t helped the party attract more Hispanic voters. Gillespie says that candidates aren’t the entire picture, but he maintained, ” Voters do relate to people that are like them.”
Gillespie also told me that in many ways the FMC and the RSLC more generally are the “first step on the escalator,” not only for candidates but also for political operatives. He said, “The RSLC provides a lot of services that includes media and staff training.” Very similar to baseball scouts, Gillespie and his group are on the lookout for local talent, both candidates and future campaign staffers. In the minority community, the addition of candidates as well as young plugged-in GOP staffers will be essential in developing expertise at all levels of the party.
The first test for the FMC and the RSLC will be the 2013 New Jersey and Virginia elections. Gillespie said: “We’ll be very active. They tend to be bellwethers.” We therefore should get an early indication how successful the Republicans can be in recruiting and electing minorities, presenting a different stance and tone on immigration and ultimately in broadening their appeal to growing segments of the electorate. The GOP’s survival may depend on it.