Emboldened Republicans Still Face Hurdles

Republicans set to talk 2010 campaign strategy at their annual winter meeting.

January 28, 2010, 5:41 PM

HONOLULU, Jan. 29, 2010 — -- It's been five years since Republicans felt this good.

"There is no doubt, on the heels of Virginia and New Jersey last year, and now Massachusetts, there is a spring in the step of Republicans," said Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Matt Strawn.

A Washington dominated by Democrats at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue hasn't just provided expanded health insurance for kids, hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to save the U.S. economy, or steps toward equitable treatment for women in the workplace. It has all also ushered in an opportunity for Republican resurgence.

It is against that backdrop that the 168 members of the Republican National Committee gather here in this luxurious beachside community for their annual winter meeting. In even-numbered years such as this one, this meeting serves as a launching pad for the leaders of the party apparatus to move into full campaign combat mode. (And, yes, it is lost on no one that Republicans are holding their meeting in Barack Obama's hometown.)

However understandably jubilant the mood may be, committee members, party strategists, and activists are keenly aware of potentially harmful divisions that exist within Republican ranks and the need to put a few more of the building blocks in place (recruitment, fundraising, policy proposals) to get the GOP house in order and primed to seize the opportunity the 2010 political environment provides.

One intra-party rift has been on prominent display here as RNC members deal with the age-old tension for any party seeking to expand its electoral reach without compromising its principles.

A proposed resolution from a group of conservative members of the committee which would have required any RNC-endorsed and financially supported candidates to agree with at least eight out of 10 specific policy positions was never formally introduced after RNC Chairman Michael Steele made clear he did not want it to pass.

Steele was outspoken in his opposition to applying such litmus tests to candidates. He cited Sen.-elect Scott Brown's recent victory in Massachusetts as a key example of the need for Republican candidates to have the flexibility to take policy positions in line with the constituents they seek to serve and those are likely to vary from region to region.

James Bopp, Jr., a national committeeman from Indiana and author of the so-called "purity resolution," claims to have inspected Brown's voting record and issue positions and believes he would have been in accordance with at least eight of the planks, on issues from immigration and health care to gay marriage and abortion.

Bopp proposed a watered-down alternative resolution aimed at forging greater consensus among committee members. In his "accountability resolution" the RNC Chairman is "empowered to take into account a candidates' faithfulness to the Republican Party's conservative principles and public policies" before providing financial support or an endorsement for that candidate. The resolution goes on to require any candidate who endorses a Democrat in the current election cycle or a Democratic presidential candidate in the next presidential cycle to refund any contributions or coordinated expenditures to the RNC.

The "accountability resolution" was also not formally introduced in the resolutions committee.

Several state party chairmen here expressed reservations about applying a national litmus test for Republican candidates up and down the ballot.

Instead, Bill Crocker, a national committeeman from Texas, introduced a resolution aimed at winning majority support. The Crocker resolution requires Republican Party leaders to determine that candidates adhere to the core principles of the RNC platform before offering an endorsement or financial support. The resolution passed out of committee unanimously and will come before the full RNC for a vote Friday afternoon.

"For now the divisions are papered over. They aren't healed and could easily reemerge after Election Day success," warned former chief strategist to the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign and ABC News contributor Matthew Dowd.

The debate within the Republican Party about putting up more purely conservative candidates versus those who may stray from party orthodoxy and be considered more "big tent" style candidates is playing out in a number of competitive primaries across the country. Republican primary voters are seeing that dynamic in Senate races in New Hampshire, California, Kentucky, Colorado, and perhaps most distinctly in Florida where Gov. Charlie Crist and former House Speaker Marco Rubio are in a battle royale for the heart and soul of the Florida GOP.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is charged with recruiting Republican candidates for the House this year. He recently said that more Democrats need to retire from competitive seats, more GOP candidates need to be successfully recruited in key battleground districts, and much more money needs to come into GOP coffers for the party to take full advantage of the political environment.

Another key component to a successful GOP campaign season will be presenting credible alternative policy prescriptions to what the Democratic majorities and President Obama are offering the public.

"They need to have initiatives of their own," said Dowd.

"Just not being the Democrats is not sound electoral strategy," said Iowa GOP Chairman Strawn. "If Republicans are to regain the trust of the voters, our candidates need to provide a principled and compelling alternative that includes solutions for the challenges facing America," he added.

Republican leaders on Capitol Hill do anticipate having some sort of a "Contract with America" style set of proposals to unveil later this year on which they hope all their candidates will run.

It's not just the troubling poll numbers for Barack Obama's health care plan that gives Republicans hope. It's what is happening on the ground at the grassroots level, in some places fueled by tea party activism, that encouraging signs can be found.

"We noticed this in Iowa just last weekend when we held our party organizing precinct caucuses," said Chairman Strawn. "While normally a very quiet process in non-presidential years, we saw a spike in turnout and enthusiasm all across our 1,774 statewide precinct locations."

The energy and activism injected by the tea partiers into the political process certainly helped fuel Brown's victory in Massachusetts. And former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, who heads up a tea party umbrella organization called Freedom Works, is on hand at the RNC meeting here to talk to party leaders about how best to harness that enthusiasm into Republican electoral gains.

"Can we form a comfortable relationship around the principles of small government?" asked Armey when describing the challenge of getting the tea party activists to join forces with the Republican Party to produce GOP electoral gains.

For a party that has spent the last five years in the doldrums, the shifting political winds are being greeted here with great excitement. But Republicans are aware that voters are not yet embracing the party as much as they are rejecting Washington.

This week's NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed Democrats and Republicans in a statistical tie when respondents were asked which party they would like to see control congress after the November midterms.

"Yes, this is the best year for Republicans since 2004. But they shouldn't be heady at all," said Dowd.

"Voters still dislike Republicans in Congress more than they dislike Democrats in Congress. And Republicans have no popular leader to rally behind like they did in 2002. And Republican registration has not grown in the last year," he added.

David Chalian is ABC News' Political Director.

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