WASHINGTON -- Republicans on Wednesday began a crucial 10-day period of plotting the party’s future and trying to heal nasty disputes that threaten the prospects for winning big in November.
Republican National Committee members will meet through Friday in Washington, 10 months after a party study group urged more inclusiveness and tolerance. Next Tuesday, Republicans will deliver a nationally televised response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address. Then Republican members of Congress will head to Cambridge, Md., for a three-day retreat.
Republican leaders hope to emerge with a strong, unified, easy-to-understand agenda for boosting the economy. The party needs a net gain of six Senate seats in November’s elections, which polls suggest is within reach, to win control from the Democrats. The GOP also has a good chance of retaining its sizable majority in the House of Representatives.
The prospects for gains are tempered by long-simmering fissures between the party’s ultraconservative wing and its more establishment branch, divisions that are deepening and could weaken the party heading into the 2016 election for control of the White House.
“We’re really going to have an internal struggle in the Republican Party,” said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho.
Whether these 10 days end with momentum or chaos might largely depend on how the following questions are answered:
– How much do Republicans stress Obamacare? Party officials find opposition to the Affordable Care Act to be a strong fundraising tool as well as a proven crowd motivator. Tuesday, the RNC sent reporters a “research briefing” listing what it called Obama’s broken health care promises.
Opposition, though, can turn to obsession, and many people want to talk about alternatives, not just finger-point. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, pledged that proposals are coming, for “a plan that will actually reduce costs for the American people and make health insurance more accessible.”
– How influential are ultraconservative groups? Polls show the tea party movement’s influence waning. Hard-line conservatives lost Republican congressional special elections in Alabama and Louisiana in November.
Still, groups such as the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Club for Growth are well-funded and retain strong constituencies, particularly in Southern states. They’re backing challengers to incumbent Republican senators and congressmen in Mississippi, Kentucky, Idaho and elsewhere.
Tuesday, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, will give a Tea Party Express response to the State of the Union, an alternative to the official Republican response.
– How will the party handle immigration issues? “Hispanic voters tell us our party’s position on immigration has become a litmus test,” last year’s report warned.
One of the study’s major remedies: “We must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only.”
Four Republicans and four Democrats helped craft a comprehensive, compromise immigration plan last year that passed the Senate in June. It included a 13-year path to citizenship and beefed-up border security.
Many conservatives protested, and while the House is expected to take up pieces of the plan, even getting it considered has been a struggle.
– Where do social issues fit? “When it comes to social issues, the party must in fact and deed be inclusive and welcoming,” last year’s report said.
Opposition to gay marriage, strict gun control and abortion rights remains popular in Republican circles. While many party leaders have tried to downplay those positions, saying that what matters is economics and health care, the social conservatives want their voices heard.
Wednesday’s RNC meeting schedule included a three-and-a-half-hour block for “Members off site at March for Life.”
Among the speakers was House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va. He told the march audience that the House will vote next week on the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, which has no chance of being signed into law.
“We cannot allow the opponents of life to continually weaken the moral fabric of our country,” Cantor said. “They need to know and they need to understand that we will continue to march.”
RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski explained that the emphasis on the anti-abortion position is in line with mainstream thinking.
“We’re a pro-life party, which is in line with a lot of Americans ,” she said. “In reality, the Democrats hold very extreme positions on life.”
A Quinnipiac poll last year found that 20 percent of voters think abortion should be legal in all cases, 38 percent think it should be legal in most cases, 25 percent think it should be illegal in most cases and 12 percent think it should be illegal in all cases.
Last year, the RNC passed a resolution declaring “support for marriage as the union of one man and one woman, and as the optimum environment in which to raise healthy children for the future of America."
Ultimately, the test for the party is whether it’s seen as too extreme and unbending or it fulfills RNC Chairman Reince Priebus’ goal of appearing tolerant and caring.
Priebus, who ordered last year’s report, has the right idea, the experts say.
“People see themselves as reasonable,” said Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “And they want to vote for people they see as reasonable.”