BROOMFIELD – Conservative commentator Michael Reagan told Colorado Republicans that the GOP must embrace the inclusive, welcoming approach taken by his iconic father, former President Ronald Reagan, in order to win elections.
Reagan spoke for an hour to about 400 donors at the state GOP’s annual Centennial Dinner on Friday at the Omni Interlocken Hotel in Broomfield on the eve of the Republican State Assembly.
State Republican Party Chairman Ryan Call used the event to unveil the GOP’s “What’s Your Story” campaign, screening videos that feature non-typical Republicans explaining why they vote Republican.
He encouraged donors to stop at a photo booth in the back of the room to have their pictures taken and then post their messages on social media with the hashtag #IVoteRepublican.
“Help us tell our story,” Call said. (Party officials made a similar plea the next day at the state assembly in Boulder and later reported that more than 1.8 million impressions had been achieved in a matter of hours by the campaign.)
It’s part of a message Call has been spreading in the wake of the 2012 election, when Democrats ran the ballot in the state and surprised Republicans by the margin of Barack Obama’s presidential win.
Introducing Michael Reagan, a former radio host, author and columnist, Call heaped praise on his father: “He understood that as a party, to be able to govern, we need to broaden our tent, we need to open our doors, open our hearts, and let people know that we first care about them before they care what we have to say.”
“It’s great talking to Republican groups,” Reagan said. “But sometimes I get concerned with some of the things that I hear, because I know how important it would be to my father and others if we really focus on winning elections and not focus on attacking each other.”
Surveying the ballroom, he said it was likely filled with a range of conservatives, from those who support the tea party to more establishment Republicans.
“We need to understand the enemy is not in this room,” he said, drawing applause. Instead, he said, the enemy is in the other party. “That is the enemy we need to defeat on Election Day in November of this year. We need to defeat the enemy of freedom.”
But Republicans thwart their own success too often, he said, and need to realize that there’s no margin in narrowing the GOP’s appeal.
“The Republican Party has never been the majority party,” Reagan said. “Never. We only become the majority on Election Day when we have a message that’s inclusive, that is going to bring people to the voting booth to vote for our candidates. That’s how we become a majority on Election Day.”
The so-called Reagan Democrats voted Republican because they responded to an inclusive message, Reagan said. “We have to find what our message is. We’ve allowed Democrats to define who we are instead of us defining who we are.”
Republicans, he said, have become lazy, handing off their message to talk radio, which he said, “sometimes comes across strident and not likable.” And that can have dire consequences, he added.
“Everybody knows we need an immigration policy,” Reagan said. “But when you’re afraid to do it for fear of what talk radio is going to say about it tomorrow, you get frozen and end up doing nothing.”
He cited the example of one-time leading presidential prospect Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who introduced an immigration policy that drew swift rebukes from hard-line talkers. “The next thing you know we’re throwing him under the bus,” Reagan said, noting that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush suffered a similar fate.
“We throw more people under the bus than we bring onto the bus,” he said.
After sharing plenty of stories about his famous father — including how his adoptive parents taught him the value of a dollar by pegging an increase in his allowance to tax cuts at the national level — Reagan concluded with a warning.
“If we don’t expand this party and embrace others to come into this party, and embrace the youth and embrace other nationalities, and become the party of inclusion instead of exclusion, then we’re not going to win either,” he said. “This party was inclusive with Ronald Reagan. Let’s not make it exclusive, if we want to win.”
Call picked up the theme in his closing remarks.
Citing a 1967 speech by Ronald Reagan, soon after he had been elected governor of California, Call said, “The infighting that had often characterized the Republican Party back then had been put aside to advance a common cause.”
“‘We must keep the door open,’” Call quoted, “‘offering our party as the only practical answer for those of us who are individualists. And because this is the great common denominator, this dedication to the belief in man’s aspirations as an individual. We cannot offer them a narrow, sectarian party, in which all must swear allegiance to prescribed commandments. Such a party can be highly disciplined, but it does not win elections. This kind of party soon disappears in a blaze of glorious defeat, and it can never put into practice its basic tenants, no matter how noble they may be.”
Following Reagan’s speech, Pitkin County Republican Party chair Frieda Wallison said she’d heard his message loud and clear.
“I think there is a segment of our party that seems to want to fight everybody in their party, where they ought to be spending their energy and efforts fighting to get candidates elected within the party,” she said. “Too often, the image of the party is of not being inclusive. I don’t think we can win elections unless are welcoming to a very broad spectrum of the electorate. Some of our candidates certainly offer that possibility, but we need to work together.”
Former state Sen. Tim Neville, R-Littleton — earlier that day he won the nomination to run for his old Senate District 16 seat — said he appreciated the message of Reagan’s talk but took it with a grain of salt.
“Everybody’s got to work together for the same thing,” he said, “as long as we keep our principles in play and we focus on principles, we can’t go wrong. But we have to keep focused on those principles.”
See the April 18 print edition for full photo coverage.