PHILADELPHIA — Republican leaders, candidates and campaign strategists are assembling in the City of Brotherly Love to give conservatives from its collar counties a glimpse of the party’s rising stars and make the case for winning Pennsylvania in the 2016 presidential election.
A GOP win in the state would be the first in 28 years.
"We’re making a commitment to Pennsylvania and other crucial swing states across the country," said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus. "By investing in Pennsylvania early and engaging in every community across the state, we can make the inroads needed to win in 2016.
"Voters don’t trust Hillary Clinton, and we are going to fight to elect a Republican president."
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who has won in a reliably blue state three times in four years — twice in general elections and once on a recall vote — leads in at least one presidential poll even though he won’t announce his anticipated run until after his state budget is signed this summer.
"Americans are tired of the fighting in Washington because neither side can get anything done. They want someone who can fight and win for hard-working taxpayers like them. That’s what we’ve done in a blue state like Wisconsin. We won the center, not by moving to the center but by leading," said Walker, 47, who grew up in Iowa and held a 7-point lead there over his nearest rival, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, in a late May poll by The Des Moines Register.
Iowa’s freshman U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, a conference speaker, hosted Walker and other White House hopefuls for a barbecue and motorcycle-themed fundraiser a week ago. Ernst in November won a seat tagged to go Democrat.
"Republican candidates need to speak to the hearts and minds of the people and understand the challenges that they face every day, and be able to come up with solutions that work for them," said Ernst, 44, a mother and Army combat veteran of Kuwait and Iraq. "People will see that and like that, and that is who they will ultimately send to Washington.
"… We need someone to bring competency and leadership," she said. "We need someone who can show that America can be a leader."
The 2015 Northeast Republican Leadership Conference is similar to a southern GOP conference, 20 years running and held in Oklahoma City last month.
Pennsylvania Republican Party Chairman Ron Gleason said he chose Philadelphia to host the group because it is "where the lion’s share of the vote is in Pennsylvania." About 45 percent of the state’s 8.2 million registered voters live in Philly’s five surrounding counties, he said.
About 3 million Pennsylvanians are registered Republican, state records show.
"We are here to make our case on how we win this state, finally," Gleason said. "… We have an opportunity here. We have put the right people in place; we have devoted money, people, and have a good message to win over skeptical voters."
The last Republican presidential candidate to carry Pennsylvania was George H.W. Bush in 1988.
That can be frustrating to the party faithful, Gleason acknowledged, but part of the solution is putting people in the field to connect with voters.
"We have 30 people on the ground right now," he said. "A year from now we will have 200."
The party is successful in down-ballot races; Republicans control both chambers of the Legislature and hold 13 of the 18 congressional seats.
Redistricting under GOP majorities aided that somewhat, said Jeff Brauer, a political science professor at Keystone College in Lackawanna County — but so does the divide between progressive Washington Democrats and more moderate Pennsylvania Democrats, he said.
"It’s not just in Pennsylvania that this is happening," Brauer said. "Republicans have continued to dominate state and local races throughout vast amounts of the nation since 2012." Such wins, he said, "can translate into much stronger grassroots efforts, which the Republican Party has lacked in recent cycles."
Even with Philadelphia’s staunchly Democratic machine, Republican Martina White, 26, won a state House seat in a special election in March, the first GOP candidate to do so in 25 years. White’s win pushed the House majority to 120, compared with 83 Democrats.
A financial adviser with no political history, she holds the Northeast Philadelphia seat vacated when Brendan Boyle won election to Congress in November.
MINING BIG DATA
Priebus and other party leaders haven’t forgotten that the lack of data to identify and reach voters was a big reason Republicans lost the race to take the White House in 2012.
The GOP "did a great job of reaching out to all voters last cycle," Priebus said. "Utilizing our data, we were better able to engage and interact with voters of all backgrounds. … We saw an uptick in Millennial votes, black votes and Hispanic votes."
One session for attendees is meant to improve voter targeting. The panel for "Winning in the Northeast: How Big Data is Revolutionizing Politics" will include representatives from tech companies and national committee members who can explain how useful data helped win traditionally Democratic gubernatorial seats in Maryland and Massachusetts last year.
"The Republicans are right on target for focusing on big data for this summit," said Brauer. "Since the demographics of voters in recent presidential elections have shifted dramatically in the Democrats’ favor, microtargeting with the use of big data will be essential."
Among voters to cultivate are blacks, Latinos, youths, gays, lesbians, urban, elderly and women. The GOP will need them in addition to its traditional base.
"Especially if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, those voters will turn out in droves in 2016," Brauer said.
Salena Zito is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at [email protected]