By STEVE PEOPLES, Associated Press
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Republican soul-searching begins in earnest this week as GOP officials from every state in the nation come together for the first time since their party's November shellacking.
There is broad agreement that the Republican Party needs to undergo fundamental changes to remain competitive as surging minority populations re-shape the American electorate. But there is no clear path forward. And even as they gather in a Charlotte, N.C., hotel this week — just days after President Barack Obama began his second term — Republicans are in some ways as divided as ever.
Facing his first re-election test later in the week, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Preibus is under intense pressure to improve the Republican brand to attract more women and Hispanics, while not upsetting the hard-line conservatives who represent his party's most passionate voters.
"They're really going to have to do full throttle self-examination. They have alienated so many people who are Republicans," said Olympia Snowe, a three-term Republican senator who retired last year, in part because of her party's shift to the right. "It's going to be a mighty challenge. The party's gone astray."
Indeed, the formal theme of the Republican National Committee's winter meeting — "Renew, Grow, Win" — reflects an understanding from party officials that the GOP must grow to survive. In particular, this week's meeting will focus on the need to abandon harsh rhetoric on illegal immigration, women's issues and the social safety net, rhetoric that helped drive moderate voters and minorities toward Democrats last fall.
"We need to renew our values, renew our party, renew what we stand for," RNC spokesman Sean Spicer said.
The push to broaden the party's message is the focus, but not the only business on the agenda for the three-day meeting in North Carolina, a presidential swing state where Democrats hosted their national convention last summer.
Republicans from across the nation will decide Friday whether Priebus deserves a second term after his party lost an opportunity to win the White House and add Senate seats under what appeared to be favorable political conditions. The 40-year-old Wisconsin native is widely expected to win re-election, despite a challenge from Maine National Committeeman Mark Willis, a former Ron Paul supporter who led a brief revolt at the party's national convention last year in Tampa, Fla.
Willis said Wednesday that he did not have the backing of three states needed to ensure a spot on the ballot with Priebus. He acknowledged that he would not likely defeat the sitting chairman even if he qualifies for the ballot. But he and others lashed out at party leaders, saying they were marginalizing grassroots supporters who favored presidential candidates like Paul, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann or Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who is thought to have interest in a 2016 presidential bid.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a conservative favorite, is attending the meeting in an unofficial capacity. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has been mentioned as a possible 2016 presidential candidate, will deliver a keynote address Thursday night.
Ongoing discussions are expected to swirl about the 2016 presidential voting calendar, which sets the first contests for Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. While no shifts are expected this week, some party officials have grown increasingly concerned about Iowa's role after its last presidential caucus.
The results were confusing at best. Mitt Romney, who eventually won the nomination, was initially declared the caucus winner by the Iowa GOP. A subsequent tally, however, suggested that Santorum actually won by a handful of votes.
Some Republicans complain that Iowa's socially conservative voters tend to support candidates that represent ideological extremes. Santorum's candidacy was driven in large part by his opposition to abortion rights and gay marriage. Four years earlier, Iowa Republicans favored Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor and ordained Baptist minister who went on to win just a handful of states.