Within minutes of TV networks calling the 2012 election for President Obama, pundits were seizing on the Democratic victory as evidence of a grave demographic challenge the nearly all-white Republican Party faces in an increasingly brown America.
In accepting re-election to head the Republican National Committee on Friday, Wisconsin's Reince Priebus acknowledged the work ahead.
“We have to build better relationships in minority communities, urban centers and college towns," he said to fellow party members in North Carolina. "We need a permanent, growing presence.”
The racial dynamics of Wisconsin politics are relatively easy to identify — just look at members of the Legislature. All 77 Republicans in the Assembly and Senate are white. Of the 54 legislative Democrats, five are black and one is Hispanic. The Democrats are hardly a bastion of diversity — in fact, there are two fewer black Democrats this session than last — but their racial and ethnic makeup more closely resembles that of the state as a whole.
The difference in gender composition is similarly stark. Eleven of the 77 GOP legislators are women (14 percent), compared to 22 of the 54 Democrats (41 percent).
Republican strategists are wringing their hands over their inability to win non-white votes, but it's difficult for them to articulate a game plan to change the situation because it might involve challenging ideology that the party base holds dear. I asked the following on Facebook: "Can the GOP increase its standing among women and minority voters without making major changes to its platform?"
Several liberals responded:
"No," answered state Rep. Dianne Hesselbein, D-Madison, and Progressive Dane co-chair Michael Johnson.
Blogger Greg Humphrey was less terse: "(T)he GOP needs to listen to the voters it wishes to attract, and less to the rigid base that has brought the party into the wilderness."
That's a theme that Mike McCabe, of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, touched on in a recent blog post, in which he took aim at state Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, perhaps the most inflammatory legislator in the state. Grothman had just made national headlines with a press release he had issued decrying Kwanzaa and warning parents that their children might be taught that the celebration of African-American identity was deserving of the same recognition as Christmas.
McCabe argued that it is inaccurate to describe the senator, a self-avowed opponent of homosexuality and the author of a law to rein in gender discrimination lawsuits, as a "conservative," since conservatism usually refers to support for the status quo.
"He is most certainly not happy with the world just as it is," writes McCabe. "He favors a world that no longer exists."
For young voters, this worldview definitely presents a problem that many in the GOP recognize.
"Many people, particularly younger people, are not as interested in the social issues that have historically been paired with the party," says George Ermert, a lobbyist in Madison and former Republican strategist. "The GOP needs to talk about fiscal responsibility and overall need for less government intrusion because that is a message that resonates with voters of all ages, races and genders.
When it comes to gay marriage, for instance, the generational divide among Republicans will gradually fade away.
However, outreach to minority communities is more complex. There is not a single party policy position that will, in the short term, dramatically improve the GOP's standing among, for instance, black voters. Consider that Republicans are often ideologically opposed to acknowledging racial or ethnic groups as having distinct interests from one another. To do so, many believe, is to fall into a false social construct designed by left-wing academics and the media.
"I try not to silo voters," said Gov. Scott Walker in an interview in which he was asked about his party's problems with Latino voters. "So I don’t say, ‘Here, my Latino message is going to be different than my message anywhere else out there,’ and I think voters appreciate that.”
And Grothman, in response to many controversies he stirs, often says he is the victim of a press unwilling to hear the voices of the silent majority. When I asked him to back up his claim that "almost no black people care" about the Kwanzaa, he cited his own recent social science research.
"I polled 20 black people at random," he says.
He conducted the survey when he was at airports in California and Arizona on his way to see the Rose Bowl. Finding 20 African-Americans in his hometown of West Bend would have likely taken days. The same is true of many other GOP legislative districts in Wisconsin, which are almost exclusively rural or suburban — and white. Sheboygan is the largest city represented by a Republican on the Senate Urban Affairs committee.
So how can Republicans talk to people they've never represented or needed to win an election? Many Republicans have written off the black vote, which is consistently over 90 percent Democratic, as a lost cause. Instead, they're focusing on Hispanics.
On this point, Christian Schneider, of the conservative Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, says the GOP needs to rethink the hardline position on immigration that the party's base has forced on its leaders, many of whom are instinctively friendly to the free market concept of freer immigration.
"For Republicans, a lot is at stake," he writes. "Without Hispanics, they may become a permanent minority themselves."