McConnell warns GOP that it must broaden appeal or die

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 29, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell did not mince words on the outlook for the GOP during his address to the Republican National Committee's annual meeting on Thursday.

The "path forward" for the Republican Party is rocky.

"We're all concerned about the fact that the very wealthy and the very poor, the most and least educated, and a majority of minority voters, seem to have more or less stopped paying attention to us. And we should be concerned that, as a result of all this, the Republican Party seems to be slipping into a position of being more of a regional party than a national one," McConnell told the gathering.

"In politics, there's a name for a regional party: it's called a minority party. And I didn't sign up to be a member of a regional party . . . As Republicans, we know that common-sense conservative principles aren't regional. But I think we have to admit what our sales job has been poor. And in my view, that needs to change."

McConnell's directive to broaden the GOP's appeal to include Hispanics, African Americans and younger voters came on the eve of the party's election of a new RNC chairman. Kentucky native Mike Duncan is facing a tough bid to retain his position as head of the RNC as members look to infuse the party with fresh leadership.

The race boasts a prominent slate of challengers including former Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, Michigan Republican Party Chairman Saul Anuzis, South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson and former Tennessee chairman Chip Saltsman, who gave members a copy of a CD that includes a song called "Barack the Magic Negro" during the holidays. Duncan said that he was "appalled" by the song.

As the GOP regroups, the RNC chairmanship will take on heightened prominence.

In the meantime, party officials are keenly aware of the party's bleak political landscape and are looking toward 2010 as an opportunity to regroup.

But such efforts are complicated.

A brouhaha broke out this week when McConnell and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, both said they were unaware of Sen. Jim Bunning’s 2010 re-election plans. Bunning said he told both men of his intentions during separate meetings and has publicly declared his plans to run for a third term.

In the 2004 election cycle, Bunning eked out a narrow 1.4 percentage point victory against Democratic challenger Daniel Mongiardo, then a state senator from Eastern Kentucky and now the state's lieutenant governor. Bunning and Mongiardo may face off again in 2010 and the junior senator is working to fill deeply depleted coffers to mount a competitive bid.

Republicans are trying to hold onto the 41 seats needed to filibuster legislation they don't like. So far, three key Republicans, Florida's Mel Martinez, Sam Brownback of Kansas, and Chrsitopher "Kit" Bond of Missouri, have announced they will not seek re-election in 2010.

"Every House member from New England is a Democrat," McConnell said. "You can walk from Canada to Mexico and from Maine to Arizona without ever leaving a state with a Democratic governor. Not a single Republican senator represents the tens of millions of Americans on the West Coast. And on the East Coast, you can drive from North Carolina to New Hampshire without touching a single state in between that has a Republican in the U.S. Senate."

Over the past two elections, Republicans lost 13 Senate and 51 House seats. The party's base is shrinking as a percentage of the overall vote and Democratic voter registration is on the rise.

"We need to communicate our ideas to everyone who ran away from the Republican Party in November — and to many others," McConnell said. "And we need to show them that our policies are developed with a human being in view, not just an abstract principle."

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