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Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus called Donald Trump to urge him to stop making controversial comments about Mexicans and immigrants on Wednesday, hours before legislators in South Carolina voted to take down the Confederate flag from the state’s capitol grounds.
Those two incidents happening at almost the same time are not an accident. The establishment of Republican Party is scrambling to address the perception that the GOP is not sufficiently diverse and racially-tolerant.
But they are facing resistance. Trump is rising in polls, with support from Tea Party conservatives who are wary of immigration reform, even as more moderate Republicans bemoan his candidacy. South Carolina legislators struggled to develop a plan to take down the flag, with protesters in the state saying its imagery is a part of the state’s heritage. Leaders in the GOP-led U.S House of Representatives were forced to pull a bill from consideration after reports that an attached amendment would have allowed the Confederate flag to be displayed on federal grounds in some cases.
The establishment of the Republican Party is desperate to win these intraparty disputes on racial issues. Priebus and other leading Republicans are concerned about the possibility of a repeat of the 2012 elections, when about 80 percent of non-white voters backed Obama, leading Mitt Romney to defeat even as he performed very strongly among whites.
Priebus has been a key figure in both the flag and Trump controversies. He flew to join South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley last month at the press conference where Haley announced she would push to have the flag removed, giving her move the implicit support of the broader Republican Party. This week, he not only reached out to Trump but had his aides publicly confirm the call.
Trump is unlikely to change his rhetoric, as evidenced by his suggestion in a tweet and in an interview with the New York Times Thursday morning that the call from Priebus was largely congratulatory. But the RNC chairman has already achieved something by making the call, as he was able to signal publicly that the top ranks of the GOP disagree with Trump and are trying to get him to shut up.
Priebus’ approach to the flag and Trump controversies are part of a number of moves by leading figures in the party to broaden its appeal to non-white voters. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is speaking Spanish constantly on the campaign trail and touting his connections to the Mexican-American community. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is in private meetings already suggesting he would tap Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, one of his top rivals, as vice-president, a move aimed at showing he would seek to appeal to Hispanic voters.
Haley, who is Indian-American, is now being touted as a potential vice-presidential candidate, with some in the GOP hailing her leadership in handling the flag controversy. Her appeal as a vice-presidential candidate reflects the growing consensus within the GOP that it will try hard not to have two white men on the ticket as it did in 2012.
But for Republicans, this process is continually an internal struggle between its more moderate wing and conservatives. The latter group continues to show strong reluctance to bow to what they view as media-driven controversies about political correctness.
“It's the P.C. police out in force," 2016 candidate Ben Carson told the conservative Daily Caller, when asked about Trump’s remarks.
And some Republicans simply doubt the party’s ability to win minority voters, citing surveys that show black and Hispanic voters favor a larger role for government in American society. To these conservatives, placating a bloc of the country who will never vote for you is unnecessary.
“The Republican Party is not monolithic and there is a debate going on. I'm always surprised by the voices of an Ann Coulter, a Laura Ingraham, a Mark Levin, who say "write off the Hispanic vote, we're never going to get it, we don't need it," says Hector Barreto, who was a co-chair of Romney's Hispanic Leadership Team in 2012.
This disagreement with the party is not completely about race. There is a similar divide on gay marriage, with a vocal minority of Republicans urging the party to strongly oppose same-sex unions, while figures like Priebus want to see the GOP focus more on the economy.