GOP Rank And File Fight Back Against Party Elite In Hollywood

Republican officials fiercely debated the definition of marriage, immigration reform, Latino and black community outreach, and if delegates are free to nominate any presidential candidate at the party's national convention.

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Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus at the National Press Club in Washington, in 2013.

Licking their wounds after a 2012 election defeat, Republicans are meeting in California this week to reassess their internal party rules. But infighting erupted on day one between grassroots and establishment forces over proposed party reforms.

An early vote at the Republican National Committee’s annual meeting, held in the unlikely liberal bastion of Hollywood, shot down a party rules provision seeking to make the GOP presidential nominating process more transparent. The GOP’s rules committee voted 31-20 against a requirement that state party caucuses and primaries bind their delegates to support specific presidential candidates at the party’s national convention.

The measure was crafted by party officials largely in response to the 2012 takeover of several state delegations by supporters of Ron Paul. Paul supporters and other grassroots party activists had booed loudly when the change was announced at last summer’s party convention with the backing of top Romney campaign lawyer, Ben Ginsberg. But it is key to the nominating calendar reforms in the party’s official 2012 election autopsy, formally known at the Growth and Opportunity Project.

The repeal of the delegate binding provision is expected to fail in a vote by the full party committee tomorrow. But the narrow issue became a proxy for a larger argument over the Growth and Opportunity Project, and charges from party foot soldiers that the document represents an effort by establishment insiders to centralize control at their expense. Although a Los Angeles Times cartoonist imagined conservatives here tossing rotten eggs at the Hollywood homes of Rob Reiner and Sean Penn, on Wednesday the eggs were flying within the Loews Hollywood hotel.

The vote on convention delegates followed hours of debate over a broader rules package adopted at last summer’s convention that has angered rank and file social conservatives and libertarians. An effort pushed by conservative, anti-establishment advocate Morton Blackwell — who has attended every convention since 1964 — to repeal all of the convention changes went down. But that only strengthened the effort for a targeted assault on the caucus rule change.

The contentious debate and vote presaged the uphill battle within the Republican Party to adapt following Mitt Romney’s defeat, while shining a spotlight on the broader divides within the party. Even among the party bosses there is a divide between the “grassroots” and the “establishment,” complicated by the fact that members disagree on which is which.

Blackwell decried the convention rules changes as a “power grab” by the establishment. “We need to send a signal that power grabs and concentrations of power are not what the Republican Party is about.” Mississippi national committeeman Henry Barbour countered that “The voters are the ultimate grassroots,” and their preferences should be respected above all.

As efforts to step up outreach to the Latino and black communities have drawn widespread support, other recommendations of the five-member review panel, including advocating for immigration reform and a softer tone on gay marriage have been fiercely opposed by many RNC members and grassroots Republicans alike.

“It is one thing for a consultant-oriented study committee to come up with suggestions,” Blackwell said after the vote, “And it’s another to realize that folks who in fact make decisions on the rules come from states where people are jealous about their rights and don’t like to be told by national folks what to do.”

Earlier Wednesday, the RNC Resolutions committee unanimously reported a measure reaffirming the party’s belief that marriage is defined as between one man and one woman. The full committee will vote on the resolution on Friday. And while immigration was not on the agenda at the meeting, some conservative party members expressed concern that the party was caving to Democratic pressure.

On a practical level, the vote also undercut a significant recommendation of the autopsy—that the Republican nominating process be shortened and made simpler—with an emphasis on primaries over caucuses and regional contests over the disorganized jumble that has defined recent cycles. “We’re a party of states rights that respects states,” said Iowa chairman AJ Spiker. “The RNC should stand for that as well when it comes to how states want to select delegates.”

Barbour, the nephew of former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, said some in the committee have lost focus on their real jobs — building a GOP that puts Republicans in office. “We got to be about winning general elections and having beauty pageants is not helping us,” he said. “I think it’s a terrible idea for us to have hundreds of thousands of people show up and vote in a primary and have a thousand people show up at a state convention and just totally reverse what the primary voters did. It’s not in the party’s interests in terms of growing the party.”