Photo: Chad Connelly
Days after President Barack Obama officially kicked off his second term, Republican leaders and activists have gathered in Charlotte for three days of soul-searching into what ails their party.Although the reasons given for the GOP’s 2012 losses vary widely, Republicans generally agree that something is very wrong, both with the GOP message and with the way the party runs national elections.
Republicans failed to turn out their own voter base — not to mention youth and minority voters — and got creamed by the Obama campaign’s superior technology and grassroots organising efforts.
At the RNC’s winter meeting in Charlotte this week, members of the committee will hear from the “Growth and Opportunity Project,” an “autopsy” committee tasked with studying the party’s 2012 shortcomings. The group isn’t expected to present any big findings, but will hear party leaders’ assessments of what went wrong.
One of those people will be Chad Connelly, the chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, and a member of one of the Growth and Opportunity Project sub-committees.
We caught up with Connelly last week, and got his take on what he expects from the party confab. According to his assessment, the GOP’s main struggle lies in its inability to articulate a conservative message, as well as in a campaign strategy that emphasises expensive media buys over grassroots organising.
Below is our lightly-edited Q&A with Connelly:
BI: Obviously, it’s been a tough couple of months for the GOP. Where do you think the party went wrong in 2012?
CONNELLY: We’re not very good at our message. I don’t think it’s a repudiation of the message at all, I don’t think we’re very good at articulating it.
Second, it’s also an indictment on the electorate. We’ve got to realise that people love hearing that message ‘I’m going to take care of you.’ We as a country can never be indicted on not taking care of people — we’ve been the best at that, at humanitarian efforts both here and abroad. But we intended safety nets not hammocks, and we’ve got a lot of people who really have an entitlement mentality.
I think the third thing is there is a real liberal media filter — we know more about David Petraeus than we do about Benghazi. Romney World was completely unwilling to go after that.
So, I think those are the three things. But the thing we can control is our message. We’ve got to be better at our message. We’ve got to be better at articulating the message, and explaining why tax increases are bad, why tax cuts are good, why government spending doesn’t work. I just don’t think we’ve done a good job of that.
BI: Do you think that part of the GOP’s problem in 2012 was a lack of a positive message though?
CONNELLY: I think that is a positive message — tax cuts, tax increases, and when people keep their own money, they make better decisions on where their money goes. I think that is a positive message, I just don’t think we did a good job of getting our message out there.
I don’t think we have to turn people off — I think we have to do a better job of connecting. I don’t think our party has done that real well. And Romney sure didn’t.
BI: South Carolina is obviously a key early state in the Republican primaries. Do you think that Republicans were hurt by such a contentious primary last year?
CONNELLY: Primaries are sort of like making a sausage — don’t watch. Primaries are bloody because you put your best against your best.
But I’m an advocate of the primary process because you find out what’s out there, you find out your abilities. Anybody that goes through it will tell you they’re a better candidate for having gone through the process because they’ve got to stand for what they believe in, and articulate what they believe in.
…In the primaries, I could not get Romney’s Boston insiders to understand that this [South Carolina] is a ground game state. It’s why states like South Carolina and Iowa and New Hampshire matter. You’ve got to prove you can pull together a ground game. It’s one-on-one. It’s about building relationships and getting to know people. South Carolina matters in the process because you can criss-cross our state….you can go to Myrtle Beach and Beaufort and you can get to know people in the diners and the churches, and that’s where the political game has always been won.
That’s where Obama beat us — they went into the cities, they built relationships, and they stayed there. We’ve got to prove we can do that again.
BI: Were you surprised by how badly Republicans were beaten organizationally in 2012?
CONNELLY: There’s no question that in a national election, we’ve got to do a better job of getting our vote out.
How do you explain Romney getting less votes than [Republican 2008 presidential nominee John] McCain did, when people are this animated and this angry? That tells me we definitely didn’t do a good job at getting out the vote. We know [the Romney campaign’s Project] ORCA failed, so we know we had 30,000 volunteers sitting around, ready to make phone calls and pinpoint voters who had or hadn’t voted, and that didn’t work.
I was frankly pretty stunned at how far off our pollsters were — that tells me that our models were wrong. It tells me we’re probably not polling the youth [correctly], we’re probably not polling cell phone numbers enough. I know we’ve done a good job of mining home phones, but we’re becoming a smartphone society, and we’ve got to do a better job of messaging.
[The Obama campaign] targeted inner-cities, and they had cell phone numbers that they could send constant text messages too. You talk to some of those people with Obama phones, and they were getting 3-5 text messages a day from the Obama [campaign] to go out and vote. That’s reaching your base, man.
We didn’t reach our base. I’m from the evangelical community and I don’t think we did a good job of reaching out to the evangelical community at all. Overall, in key states, we didn’t do a good job of getting the vote out.
BI: How much of that GOTV failure was Romney campaign’s fault? How much of the blame should fall of the RNC and state parties?
CONNELLY: Here’s what I think about the Romney campaign. Coming into South Carolina, I could not get the Boston campaign [headquarters] to listen to me that they had to get a ground game, you’ve got to get to know people, you’ve got to build on the grassroots.
I think one of the biggest failures — and I’ve already articulated this to [RNC] Chairman [Reince] Priebus — is that we cannot rely on just buying TV ads, and thinking that we’ll win.
We didn’t lose because we got outspent. In ’08, part of the review was that got outspent in some of the key states. Well, this time we matched them dollar-for-dollar. We had the fundraising capabilities. Where we lost was in the grassroots, the Get Out The Vote effort. The thing that we used to be really good at, and that I think we’re still pretty good at in South Carolina — we proved that we’re not very good at it in some key places.
We can’t say we got out-fundraised or out-spent — we got out ground-gamed. We got to take back that ground. I still think we have more committed volunteers, and more people who are willing to work if they are given some direction and leadership.
BI: Do you think that this problem is exacerbated by what some activists have called the “incestuousness” of Washington GOP consultants?
CONNELLY: Look, I like Karl Rove. I like his books. But we’ve got to take a step back and ask, ‘Does he have any credibility, after misleading us so badly?’
Somebody’s not giving us good information. I don’t know who’s responsible for it, I don’t know if it’s just Karl Rove. But I know I’m going to look at his polls, and think ‘I’m not sure this works.’
BI: Do you think Republicans will take any steps to loosen those consultants’ grip on the party?
CONNELLY: Oh, I think there already has been. Just this autopsy committee — it’s made up of people in the states who actually know what happened, as opposed to the consultants.
I’m going to be somebody who says, ‘We don’t need these insider consultants involved.’ Some of them don’t know what they’re talking about. We’ve got to take a good, hard look at what they’re saying — some of them lost a lot of credibility in this election. They spent a ton of money and it wasn’t effective.
We’ve got to look at results, and ask does it work? Is it right? Does it get results?
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