OCEAN SHORES — By the time he took the stage for his keynote address at a Republican Party conference Saturday night, Bob Herbold had heard enough complaining about the party’s poor performance in last year’s elections that he felt compelled to offer some advice.
“What’s really important in the next number of months is to avoid rooftops of tall buildings,” the former Microsoft chief operating officer said. “Just stay away.”
It was the most brazen of a dozen similar lines — some consoling, some just dark humor — delivered this weekend at the Roanoke Conference. The annual event assumed increased importance three months after the re-election of Democratic President Obama and the defeat of former Attorney General Rob McKenna, whom many saw as the Republicans’ best chance in years to win the governor’s mansion.
More than 450 politicians, strategists, lobbyists and activists came here to meet like-minded people, share information and, most of all, figure out how to get more Republicans elected.
“You’re seeing a party begin to pull itself up by its bootstraps,” said Metropolitan King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn, who lost his bid for attorney general in November. “There’s some soul-searching going on.”
Among other ideas, speakers and attendees urged the party to frame its message in a more positive way, develop strategies for getting core voters to the polls, and reach out to minorities who have sided with the Democrats.
Party officials said they plan to focus more on education during campaigns and in Olympia, where they recently took control of the Senate with the help of two Democrats. Republicans say they can win on that issue and on immigration, with better messaging.
Officials also unveiled the Northwest Republican Community Fund, a group they hope will simultaneously help the needy — and show voters the party’s commitment to helping the needy. Those at the conference kicked in some $10,000, which will go to a half-dozen charities.
But many disagreed on a central strategic question — whether the party would be better off appealing to more moderate voters (by de-emphasizing social issues like abortion and gay rights) or trying to get more base supporters to vote (by re-emphasizing social issues).
That tension triggered the conference’s most passionate exchanges.
Several speakers, meanwhile, focused on a need for party unification.
“Stop the bickering, stop the fighting, stop the nitpicking,” said U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert of Auburn. “Let’s get together.”
In discussions after Reichert’s speech, many seized on data showing minorities are voting more often and more Democratic.
“It’s all about the numbers, folks,” said West Richland City Councilman Tony Benegas. “Without going into the minority communities, there is no future of the party.”
Benegas and others argued Republicans should adopt a more moderate approach on immigration by being more respectful and recognizing the limitations in proposals like fences and citizenship-verification systems.
Another major issue, education, got special attention in a forum moderated by McKenna. Speakers agreed Republicans can capitalize on some Democrats’ resistance to what the GOP calls reform. Republicans pledge to make education their top budget priority.
A particularly contentious exchange began when strategist Judy Yu argued Republicans should “abandon social issues” because the issues are “off-putting” to independents.
Kirkland activist Jeanie McCombs disagreed.
“This is one Republican who will not be a Republican if we throw away the plank that supports life,” she announced to the crowd.
The conference also appeared split on the type of candidate they support. In a straw poll, Marco Rubio, a tea-party-aligned Florida senator, led for president. But many expressed a desire for McKenna, who spent the past year campaigning as a moderate, to run for governor again in 2016.
McKenna told The Seattle Times last week he is unlikely to run in four years.
In addition to the panels, speeches and polls, the conference offered bonding opportunities like karaoke and an after-party that invited attendees to “grab a cigar, enjoy a drink and show off your shooting skills at our Nerf gun range.”