WASHINGTON-The Nov. 4 election could test the work the Republican Party has done to change party culture and the mechanics of reaching out to voters after painful losses two years ago.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, whose task force assessed the party’s failures from 2012, said he’s pleased with some progress made, particularly in establishing a party that can go toe-to-toe with Democrats on voter registration, data and digital operations.
"We have moved light-years ahead, but we are not done," Priebus told the Tribune-Review.
He knew there would be no quick fix.
"But for a year-and-a-half turnaround, people should be floored by the amount of progress that we have made," he said.
The party is looking ahead to the 2016 presidential election and has ramped up its voter outreach efforts and fundraising. In September, Republicans raised $13.5 million to the $10.2 million reported by the Democratic National Committee in Federal Election Commission filings.
In this election cycle, Republicans have raised $163.9 million and Democrats, $143.16 million.
Priebus’ task force outlined missed opportunities in its 100-page "Growth and Opportunity Project." It examined the party’s image as mostly stuffy, old white men who are out of touch with voters — many of whom are young, female, ethnically diverse and wired in.
In response, the GOP has set up local offices across the country, including in Pennsylvania, to try to reach disenchanted voters.
"I wanted something that required us to be in communities all of the time, conducting constant and long-term engagement," Priebus said.
Reaching those who have made the biggest impact in recent presidential elections — Asian, Hispanic and black voters — will take more time, he said.
"I am not trying to carpet the world in two years, but I do think if you … show up and make the case, we can go from 5 percent of the black vote to 10 to 15 percent, or (from) 27 percent of the Hispanic vote to 35 or 37 percent," he said. "If Mitt Romney would have done that, he’d be president."
Priebus’ report on the party found an ineffective and outdated digital operation. The GOP needed to appoint respected community leaders to recruit women, minorities and young voters. It needed year-round field staff and funding in all 50 states, not just in the months leading up to elections.
"We have reached out to a lot of places where our party hasn’t gone before," said Priebus, who spoke to the Washington-based National Black Chamber of Commerce, National Urban League, and National Association of Black Journalists.
College Republican National Committee chapters opened at traditional black colleges in Ohio, Virginia and Washington, he said.
In August, the national committee finalized its plan for 2016 presidential primary debates, saying it will cut the number in half from nearly 20 held in 2012. A 13-member committee to dictate rules for that election cycle includes Pennsylvania Republican Party Chairman Rob Gleason.
"Reince has done an incredible job of modernizing this party," Gleason said. "He was charged with a daunting task."
When he became chairman in January 2011, Priebus said, the national committee employed 80 people. That number has grown to 2,000 paid employees across the country and 20,000 "precinct captains," volunteers who are enlisted and trained, he said.
"You can talk all the policy you want, but if you don’t have a conduit in the community, you never move the numbers," he said.
The party cannot afford to do what it traditionally did — ignore non-battleground states that are solid Republican or Democrat, Priebus said.
"We can’t take our eye off the ground just because it’s safe, and you have to start someplace in states that are traditional blue. If we don’t put full-time people on the ground in communities where we traditionally have no business being, we don’t grow the party."
States with the biggest operations this fall are those with Senate races in play: Iowa, North Carolina, Colorado, Louisiana, Georgia, Alaska, Arkansas, Kansas and New Hampshire. Republicans need a net win of six seats to take majority control of the chamber.
"It is a massive operation," Priebus said. "… We have to have 10 people every 10 blocks."
In Iowa, where Republican Joni Ernst is battling Democrat Bill Braley for the seat opened by Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin’s retirement, Republicans for the first time in history held the ballot advantage in early votes and absentee returns, GOP operative David Kochel tweeted Wednesday.
That day, the GOP finished with a combined advantage of 305 early votes and absentee ballot returns, though Democrats hold the advantage in ballot requests, according to the Iowa Secretary of State’s website.
"Imagine you have 10 people every 10 blocks in Des Moines," Priebus said. "Each one of those 10 people has a list of 200 people on a piece of paper, and each one of those 10 people is going to get to know those 200 people — who votes, who doesn’t vote, who would vote if you get to them."
This restructuring should be a lasting effort, Priebus said.
"No matter where I am next year, or years to come, year-round community outreach is something permanent here at the RNC now, and something that will never slip away again," he said.
"We want to win. … The preparation for the win is where things are determined and ultimately decided, and that is part of our responsibility as the national party."
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Political Reporter