NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections. They’re losing among women, voters under 30, and among Hispanic, African-American and Asian voters by huge margins. Their white, male base represents an ever-shrinking piece of the electorate.
But as Republican leaders and activists grapple with the GOP’s identity and path forward, conservatives are increasingly pushing back on the notion that the party must adjust its positions to remain viable.
What’s really needed, say those gathered this week for the Conservative Political Action Conference, is a more positive articulation of the conservative message so it has broader appeal.
“We need to draw into our party people from every corner of society because conservative principles, and not liberal dogma, best reflect the ideals that made this nation great. We should be united in the principle that everyone should be given the opportunity to rise to the top, to raise a family, and to be free,” former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said Friday night in the most substantive speech of the three-day event.
“The popular media narrative is that this country has shifted away from conservative ideals, as evidenced by the last two presidential elections,” Texas Gov. Rick Perry said. “That might be true, if Republicans had actually nominated conservative candidates in 2008 and 2012.”
The American Conservative Union’s annual CPAC gathering for decades has been a haven for highlighting conservative ideas and thinkers, and invariably offers fiery red-meat conservative speeches. This year’s CPAC, coming after President Barack Obama’s comfortable reelection, is more listless and often featured defensiveness about suggestions that the party’s agenda is contributing to its struggles with national elections.
Sen. Marco Rubio’s biggest applause line Thursday: “We don’t need a new idea. There is an idea, the idea is called America, and it still works.”
Still, Rubio echoed other featured speakers in suggesting the GOP must show it is on the side of middle-class and struggling Americans — in a way Mitt Romney failed to do.
Mingling among the book-signers, NRA and anti-abortion booths, and occasional fellows dressed in colonial militiaman garb, activists agreed the party must connect with everyday Americans and reach a more diverse group of voters.
“We need to do more outreach to the Latino and the black community. We were pretty silent on it the last election,” said Arne Owens, 59, of Richmond, Va. “But I do think we need to reemphasize the core conservative message, talk about pocketbook issues, the free market and families. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, ‘no pale pastels.’ Let’s have some bright colors that show the contrast, that show the difference.”
American Conservative Union President Al Cardenas argues that Republicans need to stand firm on conservative principles, but also “recruit competent, eloquent people, which we haven’t done a good job of in the past, and you’ve got to reach out to all Americans, which we haven’t done in the past.”
He added, “Diluting our principles for the sake of expanding our tent is the surest way to lose in the future.”