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A Step Back, a Look in the Mirror, a Team Realignment

Rapid response and Hispanic media outreach are among new priorities for the Republican Conference communications outfit

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers is working to bolster the communications team at the House GOP Conference, bringing in a bevy of campaign staffers with aspirations of broadening the GOP’s media outreach to new audiences such as moms, minorities and youth.

“Coming out of the 2012 election there’s a recognition among Republicans that our message was not connecting with enough people in this country. And we didn’t do as well with women, we didn’t do as well with Hispanics and minorities in general, the youth vote. So everyone has taken a step back,” the conference chairwoman said in an interview with CQ Roll Call.

The push mirrors how Republicans nationwide are grappling with their disappointing losses in November’s elections and is one of the manifestations of the ways the GOP is changing its approach on Capitol Hill.

McMorris Rodgers’ new communications team is roughly twice the size of the one in place under Rep. Jeb Hensarling, her predecessor. Hard-charging chief of staff Jeremy Deutsch led a top-to-bottom staff evaluation with outside consultant Mildred Webber that resulted in at least one firing.

Nate Hodson, who came from Karl Rove-affiliated super PAC American Crossroads, is heading up the shop as communications director, with Riva Litman as press secretary. Pam Stevens, a former director of television in the George W. Bush White House who “knows everyone,” is in charge of booking Republican lawmakers’ media spots.

Famed debate coach Brett O’Donnell has been brought in for regular media training. Two former Mitt Romney campaign staffers, John Whitman and Wadi Gaitan, are in charge of rapid response and Hispanic media outreach, respectively. Tim Cameron, a former online political consultant with a campaign background, is digital director.

Hodson said he is taking a lesson from President Barack Obama’s campaign in trying to find ways to reach voters through niche media outlets such as, the Internet’s leading parenting blog where Michelle Obama regularly posts.

Even more important is Hispanic media outreach, fronted by the 24-year-old Gaitan, who mans the “GOPespanol” Twitter handle and has been enlisting Republican members to participate in Spanish-language interviews.

Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., was an early volunteer who said he had been practicing half an hour twice a week to regain the fluency he gained from two summers in Spain in the late 1980s.

The Spanish Twitter feed encountered a bit of turbulence when Iowa Rep. Steve King, who has pushed legislation to implement English as the nation’s official language, objected, but King quickly backed off, and the rest of the GOP seems on board.

“Time and time again, what happens is the second generation starts to learn [English], and by the third generation often times they’ve lost their native tongue,” Mulvaney said.

On Hispanic outreach more broadly, Republicans are still debating what the political impact will be of media outreach, efforts to overhaul immigration policy and other initiatives.

In a recent New York Times magazine story, top Obama adviser David Plouffe said “the bigger problem [Republicans have] with Latinos isn’t immigration. It’s their economic policies and health care. The group that supported the president’s health care bill the most? Latinos.”

McMorris Rodgers said the first step is “making sure that Hispanics know that we care. It is reaching out to them and it is building some relationships with Hispanic leaders and the Hispanic community around this country. And making sure that they know there’s Hispanic members serving in the House. And being a part of the conversation on Hispanic television and radio and Facebook and Twitter.”

McMorris Rodgers is also trying to catalyze a dynamic office culture. Walls of the conference have recently been painted bright colors, giving the office the feel of an Internet startup. Others were treated with white board paint and a wall in the foyer is being turned into a chalkboard to let aides brainstorm on the walls.

Every week they have “Innovation Friday,” a chance for the staff to pitch new ideas to improve communication internally and externally. The office is also establishing one room as the “Innovation Lounge.”

In early February, the staff visited the Washington, D.C., offices of Facebook, Microsoft and Google, looking for ideas. They ended up instituting Facebook’s meeting policy, which authorizes staff to leave when the scheduled end of a meeting has arrived. No one has yet walked out of a meeting with McMorris Rodgers, however.

In contrast to the colored walls, Deutsch requires his male staffers wear ties during congressional recesses, prompting questions at meetings with casually dressed colleagues from other offices. He has urged the team to respond to reporters within 25 minutes “like Dominoes Pizza.”

One bump in the road came early on in McMorris Rodgers’ tenure, when she told Politico that Republicans might “shut down the government” to get Obama’s attention on spending cuts. That missive, surprisingly bold for her, hadn’t been planned in advance with other members of the leadership team, causing some heartburn.

“It was a question that I was asked and I gave a response as to where I thought we were at that point,” McMorris Rodgers said.

More recently, skepticism on the part of some of the other leadership offices has been replaced with praise for how diligently conference aides are working.

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