By John Hudak, via www.brookings.edu
Thursday afternoon, CPAC hosted a panel on GOP outreach into minority communities. The panel included Virginia Senate candidate Ed Gillespie and a panel of Republican political strategists: Jason Roe, Elroy Sailor, and Robert Woodson. The panel delivered a remarkably pointed review of GOP voter outreach (largely its failures) and explained, in very straightforward terms, how the party can (and must) do better. However, the most revealing part of the experience was not what happened on stage, but what happened off stage, and reflects the national electoral struggles Republicans are facing.
About ten minutes into the panel, I snapped a photo (shown at the right) of a largely empty ballroom. The lack of attendance for the panel is a huge loss and missed opportunity for participants. CPAC brings together some of the Republican Party’s most passionate, engaged, and eager members. The people who attend the meetings run campaigns, volunteer for issue-based efforts and candidates’ campaigns. They are leadership in an army of grassroots conservatism. The panel of Gillespie, Roe, Sailor and Woodson was there to address a basic question: how do we grow our ranks in areas where we traditionally underperform?
The advice was solid. Woodson explained that one problem is that “we don’t have a ground game” particularly in minority neighborhoods. Sailor eloquently noted a key to Republican success: “We don’t have to abandon our existing friends to make new ones.” The message was simple. Republicans don’t necessarily have to change their values. They have to change how they talk about the issues and who they talk to. That takeaway is not a tall order, but something doable, something digestible. And, most notably, there are people in the party who know how to do it.
Yet, for some time, the message didn’t just fall on deaf ears—there were few sets of ears in the room. Suddenly, that changed. In fact, as I tweeted the above photo, I had a response from someone who snapped a picture of a much fuller room. That picture was accurate and so was mine. That picture showed a nearly full ballroom, while my picture showed an empty one. So what was the difference?
The difference was that the diversity panel ran over its time. People began filling in—in droves. Why the change of heart? The diversity panel ran late and into the time slot for NRA executive Wayne LaPierre to address CPAC in the same room. LaPierre went on to give a rousing speech that generated some of the loudest enthusiasm of the day from the crowd. Yet, therein lies the problem. Speaking to gun rights supporters is not the path to Republican success at the national level. Most ardent supporters of the 2nd Amendment find Democrats to be a threat and reliably vote Republican. Wayne LaPierre doesn’t change minds. He doesn’t necessarily grow the party, as people have very polarized views about him and the topic for which he very successfully and eloquently advocates.