Michael Steele’s difficult tenure as head of the Republican National Committee from 2009 to early 2011 has been largely defined by his struggle to raise money, stay on the party’s message and/or win over key figures in the Republican establishment like Karl Rove.
But in reality, Steele’s biggest problem was that he was ahead of his time. The results of the 2008 election, as Steele argued back then, showed that the Republican Party needed to take more aggressive steps to win young, black and Hispanic voters. Instead, Republicans tapped Steele as head of the RNC to give the party a charismatic, non-white spokesman, but largely ignored his message of finding ways to appeal to new voters.
This worked in the short-term, as Republicans rode a wave of anti-Obama and anti-Washington energy to victory in 2010, but failed again in the face of an even more diverse electorate showing up this November.
Republican leaders, in their public statements since the campaign, at least, do seem to get it now: The party cannot win presidential elections in the future if 80 percent of non-white voters oppose GOP candidates.
That does not mean Republicans will now turn for advice to J.C. Watts, the former congressman from Oklahoma and one of the few black Republicans to serve in the party’s leadership in modern times. Watts floated his name Monday as a potential chairman of the Republican National Committee, but the 168 members of the committee like current chairman Reince Priebus and are likely to reelect him. He excels at fundraising and repeating party themes on television without interjecting his own thoughts, qualities both parties prize in chairpersons.
More importantly, having Watts, Priebus or Steele as party chairman is not that significant. Few voters in America are familiar with each party’s official chairman. Instead, what’s important for Republicans to win young and minority voters is policy stances, particularly on issues like immigration, the tone those stances are communicated in, and the candidates who are actually on the ballot. No party chairman could undo the damage from Romney’s rhetoric in 2011 on immigration, which generated strong opposition from Latinos, or his comment about blacks and others voting for Obama because he gave them financial gifts.
Republicans are now actively discussing how to win over minority voters. The proof will be in how they actually execute that vision, and that will have little to do with the party chairman.
Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr