Legislators gathered here in the Texas State Capitol on the eve of the next Legislative session. For conservatives it was a mixture of feelings about what just happened last November. Here's what the head of the Texas Republican Party Steve Munistieri had to say: "If only men had voted, Romney would be president. He won the male vote 52-45. That's pretty significant."
He's done the numbers nationally, as well as state-wide, and while he says the November election brought lots of good news for the GOP in Texas, nationally it was a debacle. For the head of the party, 2012 looked more like a head wound, and Munistieri says it was self inflicted: "But when you lose the female vote 55-44 and women turn out in a significantly higher number, I think you have to look at that. I would just sum it up like this: bad campaign."
Steve was one of a group of people gathered to talk about lessons from 2012 here in Austin. Brad Bailey is a conservative businessman who champions immigration issues. He says from the campaign software to the political message, the GOP needs a fresh approach.
"You know, we've go to look at a totally different software program and development program to go after the youth vote and connect, because some of the greatest leaders have come up from College Republicans. Get those organizations working hard with us."
Outgoing Republican state legislator and former Democrat Aaron Pena told the group of Conservative activists that it was a combination of bad campaign and bad campaign, at least for his constituents, who generally have no problem voting for the GOP.
"Romney, I will tell you back home, was a very tough sell. Especially when he started talking about issues that were a primary concern to my community. We need to have people who talk about the issues that matter to ordinary people – messaging geared towards winning primaries – wound us to such a degree that when it comes to a general election, it's very difficult to win."
Very difficult, and as far as Hispanics and Latino voters were concerned this year, the numbers were impossible. Aaron Pena said that hurt:
"You know when someone doesn't invite you to the party, you know that you're not welcome. I will tell you having been raised on the border my entire life, the Hispanic community is not much different from other communities. They want the same measure of respect. The values Republicans stand for, they are there, but we have to till the fields and bring them to fruition."
Conservative activist and Vice President at the Texas Public Policy Forum Joshua Trevino was even more blunt. The message from his own party turned his own tough independent-minded grandma off: "My grandmother wanted to renew her drivers license… She got the idea that she was somehow in danger of deportation if she did not"
She hasn't driven, Trevino said, in 10 years. She just worried about needing ID if she's Hispanic these days. Brad Bailey says the GOP needs to get serious about immigration reform if it wants Latinos to get more serious about the GOP.
"I believe the path to legalization would be a huge step in the right direction but we can't be the party of "deport 12 million people immediately." We've got to make sure that we address that and we don't have the tone like 'illegal alien' and those things that are divisive. But this is a honest conversation that conservatives want to have and need to have."
And they need to have that conversation at the National level, taking some lessons, Joshua Trevino says, from states like Texas:
"The GOP nationally is very closed to a failed party but at the state level, the GOP is a super majority party. We have 32 state houses at this point. The Republicans are a phenomenally successful party at the state level."
Trevino suggested half seriously that the Republican national committee be abolished and replaced by the Republican governors association. Steve Munistiere wouldn't go that far but he pulled no punches on criticizing the national party.
"The RNC had no one working on outreach, and yet they had 400 employees. They spent hundreds of millions of dollars. I've pointed this out to the RNC. 'Give us a million dollars and you could hire 20 field people and let them work with Hispanic community.' I think that would make a difference. So yes, that is a winning coalition for the Democrats but it could also be a winning coalition for the Republicans and we just need to do our job."
All of these activists agreed that nationally the GOP is just a few percentage points in some key demographics, and a good, exciting, inspiring candidate away from winning the White House.
Everyone at this meeting in Austin yesterday was wowed by the message from newly elected Republican Senator Ted Cruz who told this crowd his mission was to bust the "party of the rich" brand that has dogged the GOP while being tough on fiscal issues. Senator Cruz told host John Hockenberry is going to play tough with President Obama in the upcoming debt ceiling fight. Turn it into a national debate about responsible government. The first shot, you might say, in the next campaign.