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Reince Priebus knows his party has a problem. Taking the stage Friday at the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting in Washington, D.C., one didn’t have to listen long to the RNC chairman’s remarks to come to that conclusion.
“I’ve said many times before that the policies and principles of our party are sound,” Priebus told the assembled RNC faithful at a meeting that’s theme was “Building to Victory.” “However, as we look to grow the ranks of our party, we must all be very conscious of the tone and choice of words we use to communicate those policies effectively. We all know the GOP has to get out of our comfort zones and go to places we haven’t been for a while and engage and welcome new voters.”
Priebus’s remarks mirrored suggestions made in an “autopsy” report of the Republican Party released in March, which argued for increased outreach to minority communities, including the LGBT community. While not advocating for an overhaul of the party platform, which still opposes same-sex marriage, the report did call for an effort to make the party more welcoming in image and tone.
Shortly after Priebus left the stage, the Detroit Free Press reported that Priebus, along with the chairman of the Michigan GOP, Bobby Schostak, are calling on an anti-gay member of the RNC to resign. “For the good of the party, we believe Dave Agema should resign,” Priebus and Schostak said in a joint statement to the newspaper. Agema, who previously served in the Michigan House of Representatives, has a history of anti-gay and anti-Muslim remarks but has come under fire for recent comments he made on Facebook, one of which praised Russia’s anti-LGBT law as “common sense.”
Priebus and Schostak are the latest to join a chorus of Republican officials calling for Agema’s resignation. Earlier this month, Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) said that Agema’s “approach has become a distraction for those of us who are standing up to the political establishment, whose push for bigger government, more corporate welfare, and less individual liberty have hurt our party.”
“Defending civil liberties is at the heart of the Republican Party and our Constitution,” Amash said in a statement. “As I’ve demonstrated with my words and record, I am trying to grow a new generation of Republicans that includes more gays and lesbians, racial-ethnic minorities, women, and young people.”
Betsy DeVos, a former RNC member and wife of a former GOP candidate for governor of Michigan, told The Detroit News that Agema has damaged the Republican Party.
“Leaders have a responsibility to create an inclusive, welcoming party, not to exclude,” DeVos said. “What’s going on is cause for concern about our future prospects as a party and our ability to bring people around to our point of view and long-term agenda. We are driving people away who might otherwise support what we stand for.”
Agema declined to attend this week’s winter meeting at the last minute, sending a proxy to vote in his place. He said his liberal critics within the GOP have chosen to “elevate this discussion” to the RNC winter meeting and “make it a drawn out fight between liberals and conservatives within the party.”
Agema’s defiance, however, signals a broader problem for the GOP as they seek to build a coalition that can win a national election. While the RNC’s autopsy report released last year stated, among other things, that to appeal to younger voters the GOP must not be seen as “totally intolerant of alternative points of view,” that strategy has not been embraced — and in Agema’s case outright rejected — by some of the party’s loudest voices.
And it is that rejection of tolerance that led one Republican operative to very publicly leave the party earlier this month. Jimmy LaSalvia, who previously worked for Log Cabin Republicans and left to found the more conservative gay group GOProud in 2010, announced he was leaving the GOP to become an independent.
“I am every bit as conservative as I’ve always been, but I just can’t bring myself to carry the Republican label any longer. You see, I just don’t agree with the big-government ‘conservatives’ who run the party now,” LaSalvia posted on his website. “The other reason I am leaving is the tolerance of bigotry in the GOP. The current leadership lacks the courage to stand up to it – I’m not sure they ever will.”
LaSalvia’s very vocal abandonment of the GOP, which has landed him interviews on MSNBC (where he predicted the Republican Party will never win another national election) and in numerous media outlets, has been just one sign of a national party that appears well aware of what is ailing them but helpless to do something about it.
It is a struggle that has played out on the local level as well. Republicans in Indiana desperate to push through a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage, despite an already existing ban, pulled a legislative maneuver so questionable that it caused one Republican candidate to leave the party.
With the proposed constitutional amendment facing defeat in the originally assigned committee, Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma, a Republican, reassigned the measure from the House Judiciary Committee to the more conservative House Elections and Apportionment Committee at the last minute. Freedom Indiana campaign manager Megan Robertson said the move was a “dark day for democracy in the state of Indiana,” while Andy Markle, a gay Republican running for the Indiana House of Representatives, abandoned his party over Bosma’s move.
“I am not leaving the Republican Party; the Republican Party has left me,” Markle, who is associated with the Indiana chapter of GOProud, wrote on Facebook.
The committee advanced the amendment to the House floor with a 9-3 vote along party lines. Among those who testified against the proposed amendment were business leaders who said it would alienate the kind of talented young people they are trying to attract to the state.
For national GOP operatives, the path to victory is tied to a firm stand from those at the top. Although there was little discussion of Republican outreach to the LGBT community from the podium at the RNC’s winter meeting, Log Cabin Republicans (LCR) hosted a well-attended happy hour for committee members.
According to LCR Executive Director Gregory T. Angelo, that event, as well as the calls for Agema’s resignation today from the chairman of the RNC demonstrate the “only true schism in the party right now is between those Republicans who know how to win and those who don’t.”
“The way to change the party is for GOP leadership on all levels to show some backbone and push against bigotry,” Angelo told Metro Weekly. “What makes the Agema situation so historic is that marks a moment where a genuine shift in the party took place: you’ve had prominent people at all levels of the GOP — Chairmen, Congressmen, financiers, and grassroots — standing up against this guy. The RNC knows how to win elections; now they just need to step up and do what it takes.”
[Photo: Reince Priebus. Credit: Gage Skidmore.]