Washington – The Republican Party's road map for winning presidential elections looks hazier than ever as GOP lawmakers and others reject what many considered obvious lessons from Mitt Romney's loss last year.
House Republicans are rebelling against the key recommendation of a party-sanctioned post-mortem: embrace "comprehensive immigration reform" or suffer crippling losses among Hispanic voters in 2016 and beyond.
Widespread rejection of warnings from establishment Republicans goes beyond that, however. Many activists say the party simply needs to articulate its conservative principles more skillfully, without modifying any policies, even after losing the popular vote in five of the past six presidential elections.
Despite Romney's poor showing among female voters, House Republicans this past week invited renewed Democratic taunts of a "war against women" by passing the most restrictive abortion measure in years.
Despite corporate fears of the economic damage that would result from a default on U.S. obligations, GOP lawmakers are threatening to block an increase in the government's borrowing limit later this year if President Barack Obama won't accept spending cuts he staunchly opposes.
Republicans have lots of time to sort out their priorities and pick a nominee before 2016. They may need it.
Party activists appear far from agreed on even basic questions, such as whether to show a more conservative face to voters versus a moderate face, and whether to seek a libertarian-leaning, tea party-backed nominee as opposed to a more traditional Republican such as Romney.
"There are pretty vigorous debates going on within the party," said Kevin Madden, a top Romney adviser.
The most immediate one centers on the only major policy recommendation from a party-commissioned report written after Romney's defeat. Citing dismal showings among the fast-growing Hispanic electorate, the report said Republicans "must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our party's appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only."
Many Republicans flatly reject the advice.
"If the goal of it is to try to fix presidential politics, I think it's the wrong thing to do," said Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla. He and many other House Republicans say the best way to attract Hispanics is with the basic conservative pitch used elsewhere: less government, low taxes, personal freedom.
But Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said these Republicans are fooling themselves. If Hispanics "think you really are going to deport their grandmother and you've got a hard heart about this kind of stuff," Graham said, "your economic ideas don't resonate."
"It's impossible winning the presidency getting 27 percent of the Hispanic vote, 30 percent of the Asian vote and 7 percent of the African-American vote," Graham said. "America is changing."
Actually, Romney did slightly worse. He won 26 percent of the Asian-American vote and 6 percent of the black vote. He did best among older white voters, a steadily declining share of the electorate.
Many Republicans say their biggest presidential problems involve tone and perceptions, not their stands on issues. If GOP Senate candidates avoid saying incendiary things, such as pregnancies don't result from "legitimate rape," the party's appealing economic message can break through and thrive, these Republicans say.
Last November, "a huge chunk of our problem was tone and temperament," said Mike McKenna, a Republican consultant and pollster. Obama's team also did a far better job of identifying and contacting potential supporters, he said.
"A much, much smaller part of the problem was policy," McKenna said. "It's not like we're the Whig party on the verge of extinction," he said, so there's no need for panic.
Opinion polls tend to support his view that perceptions are hurting Republican candidates more than policy positions are. A Pew Research Center poll in May found that those surveyed gave neither party an advantage on handling gun control, immigration or the economy.
In general terms, however, people view Republicans less favorably than they do Democrats. A Quinnipiac University poll conducted this spring found that 53 percent of registered voters felt the Democratic Party "cares about the needs and problems of people like you," while just 37 percent said the GOP did.
Republican strategist Steve Lombardo said the party needs to change its tactics and messaging, not its underlying principles. The problem, he said, is not "that the party is conservative, but rather that it spends too much time on issues that are not salient to a wide swath of Americans." That includes, Lombardo said, "dozens of House votes to overturn Obamacare with no hope of Senate passage."
Tea party activists say Republican candidates should push conservative values even more forcefully.
"Stop compromising," said Jessica Johnson, 37, of Charleston, W.Va., who attended a political rally this past week in Washington. "Some conservatives get frustrated and stay home" on Election Day, she said, so an unapologetic defense of low taxes and less regulation could improve GOP presidential chances.
From a presidential campaign standpoint, motivating the party's base is only half the battle, said Dan Schnur, a former top Republican aide who teaches political science at the University of Southern California. The other half, he said, is attracting centrist voters who determine general elections in crucial states.
But a Republican House member who reaches out to moderate voters could invite a challenge from the right in his next GOP primary, Schnur said. "Doubling down on social conservatism is a perfect strategy for maintaining or expanding a House majority," he said, but it won't win the up-for-grabs voters a presidential nominee must have.
Some Republican strategists say it's counterproductive to try to reconcile House members' ambitions with those of presidential contenders. A successful presidential candidate "must differentiate himself from the very toxic GOP congressional brand," said Steve Schmidt, a top aide to the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain.
Schmidt said the most promising GOP contender will probably be a governor or "an iconoclast senator" who is seen as standing apart from Washington's partisan gridlock that so angers voters.
Some Democrats ask why they should save Republicans from questionable decisions such as blocking immigration changes.
"When 500,000 Latino citizens turn 18 every year and become potential voters, Republicans seem hellbent on lining up and jumping off a demographic cliff," Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., said in a recent speech. "As a Democrat, I should probably just stand back and watch."