Late Wednesday afternoon, as the impact of Mitt Romney’s loss sunk in, a quote by Utah Republican strategist Chuck Warren began bouncing around Twitter.
“To be frank, we’re a ‘Mad Men’ party in a ‘Modern Family’ world,” Warren said, according to a Tweet from Matt Lewis, a conservative columnist.
That’s one take on the GOP’s consecutive failures to secure the White House: that the party’s base is too narrow, confined largely to older white voters with outdated attitudes on social issues.
An alternative theory holds that the party erred in the opposite direction, choosing Romney over more conservative candidates who would have engendered greater passion among the GOP’s grass roots.
Republicans were stuck with “a weak, moderate candidate,” in the eyes of Jenny Beth Martin of Cherokee County, a national leader of the Tea Party Patriots. Romney was “hand-picked by the Beltway elites and country-club establishment wing of the Republican Party. The presidential loss is unequivocally on them,” Martin wrote in an email to supporters.
The push-pull over the party’s future may be felt with special urgency here in the South, one of the most reliably red regions of the country. Many of the themes that attracted white southerners to the GOP — opposition to social welfare programs, affirmative action, illegal immigration, abortion and same sex marriage, to name a few — are central to the debate.
How the GOP can capture the presidency again is an open question. How a Democrat can do it is clear.
Exit polls taken Tuesday show that Barack Obama formed a coalition of single women, African Americans, Latinos and Asians to swamp the old guard base of the GOP: white men and white married women. The poll showed Romney led with married women 53 percent to 46 percent, but single women voted for Obama 67 percent to 31 percent.
The numbers are more stark among minorities: Only 6 percent of blacks and 27 percent of Latinos voted for Romney.
Seth Weathers, a Johns Creek public relations executive and GOP activist, is among the party’s modernize-and-diversify camp. Until Republicans figure out how to be more Jay and Gloria, the white husband and Colombian wife on ‘Modern Family,’ and less Roger Sterling, the stuck-in-the-1950s ad man, the White House will elude the party, he said.
“Republicans have to back off from some of their extreme opinions that don’t match up with the majority of Americans right now,” said Weathers, 28. “We go after too many things that don’t matter. I’m a latte-loving Republican, and that’s become a bad thing.”
For two presidential cycles now, state Rep. B.J. Pak, R-Lilburn, said, the GOP has been branded as “less welcoming of other ethnic, minority groups.” While he does not believe that to be true, perception can become reality. He called Tuesday a ‘wake up call” for Republican.
Pak and others believe there is ample reason for many minority voters to relate to the Republican Party platform. Fiscal conservatism for some; social issues for others.Those voters belong in the GOP, Pak said.
“You don’t want to diversify for the sake of diversity,” he said. “We need to bring and reach out to those groups and voting blocs where we share the common conservative view.”
In South Carolina, Republican Party chairman Chad Connelly, agreed.
“I talk to those voting blocs that don’t line up to us normally, and they relate to our message,” Connelly said. “Hispanic small business owners — those should be Republicans. They do resonate with our message. We’re just not doing a good job getting it out.”
In West Virginia, where Romney won every county, state Republican Party chairman Conrad Lucas said Obama successfully painted Romney as insensitive to the challenges facing ordinary people, especially women.
“Communication and messaging was the problem,” Lucas, 31, said. “The Obama campaign really got the jump on Romney when they defined the issues.”
The so-called “war on women,” was created by the Obama team, he said. “Obviously, it was crazy to think there was ever a Republican war on women, and if anybody hurt them it was Barack Obama.”
But Weathers, the Johns Creek activist, scoffed at the idea the GOP message got drowned out.
“That’s nuts,” Weathers said. “The candidate spent a billion dollars and America is not sure what our message is? I don’t buy it.”
And Martin, the tea party leader, said the messenger himself, not the message, was flawed. If anything, she and others suggested, doubling down on conservative principles is the only winning strategy.
The first task, she said, is to stop “the mushy-middle, non-fighters in the GOP from rolling over and getting rolled, yet again, by the left.”
Herman Cain, the former pizza magnate, radio host and one-time favorite for the Republican nomination, told a conservative radio show Wednesday that white voters who stayed home on Election Day “can take part of the credit for what happened.”
“They weren’t excited about Mitt Romney,” said Cain, a McDonough resident.
Now, Cain said, he does not believe the GOP as currently constructed can recover.
“We need a third party to save this country,” Cain said on Bryan Fischer’s American Family Radio show. “I don’t believe the Republican Party has the ability to re-brand itself against the mainstream media machine that blatantly works to support this president and other liberals.”
Cain and Martin help prove Zachery Michael’s point. Michael, 23, a Florida Republican, said his party had a “great candidate” who was undone by the power of incumbency, party infighting and image.
“Democrats are more united than Republicans,” Michael said. “You have moderate Republicans, conservative Republicans and then those regarded as right-wing extremists. There needs to be unity within the party.”
But Sunday Holland Jones, 44, of Bowdon in West Georgia, said Republicans are missing the point. Americans want the parties to work together, Jones, a conservative-leaning independent, said, and voters do not want to have to choose between lesser evils.
“They cannot ask the GOP members to choose between womanizers, candidates that are not conservative, or a Libertarian running as a Republican,” Jones, a college student, said. “As long as voters are asked to choose among candidates with extreme social, economic and foreign policy agendas or platforms, separation and disparagement will exist within the party.”
Tuesday was not a total loss for Republicans. Thirty states now have Republican governors, and the national party should learn what is working in the states, said Republican Jeremy McClearly, of Woodstock, Va.
Romney, he said, was well-suited to a campaign based on the economy. Unfortunately, McCleary said, “it was Romney’s dramatic shift on a number of social issues that hurt his credibility and made perfect soundbites for the Obama campaign to use against him.”
McCleary, the nonpartisan mayor of his small town in the Shenandoah Valley, said Virginia’s 2013 gubernatorial race could be an important bellwether on the future of the party. Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling chaired Romney’s Virginia campaign and will face Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a tea party favorite, for the Republican nomination.
Which way the Virginia party goes could foretell the lesson Republicans take from Tuesday. After all, the 2016 Iowa caucuses are only 1,151 days away.