DENVER — Republican strength in this year's House and Senate races could, strangely enough, hurt the party's presidential chances by stalling the changes in style and policy advocated after Mitt Romney's defeat in the 2012 presidential campaign.
GOP officials and strategists say it's hard to persuade party leaders to adjust the political recipe when they feel increasingly upbeat about adding Senate control to their solid House majority this fall. This optimism, numerous GOP strategists say, makes looking past the party's loss of the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections easy.
"It's very difficult to make an argument for change and modernization when you're winning," said Joel Sawyer, a former South Carolina GOP official who advises campaigns in several states. Citing the party's nationwide reliance on older white voters, Sawyer said, the GOP needs "to start modernizing now to become relevant to younger voters and nonwhite voters."
The party's dilemma was in sharp relief in a Denver public television studio here, where four candidates gathered for a Republican primary debate in the race to represent the deeply conservative, rural and exurban 4th Congressional District, which covers the eastern third of the state.
All the candidates said they oppose gay marriage, want to repeal President Barack Obama's health care plan and object to allowing people living in the country illegally to become citizens.
The front-runner in the Colorado race, Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck, narrowly lost a U.S. Senate race in 2010 because he was seen as too extreme on issues like abortion and immigration. Now he has been hit in ads by state Sen. Scott Renfroe for "flip-flopping" on those two issues.
"It's one of the great ironies of Republican politics that we fall victim to," Buck said in an interview. "I'm very conservative on life, I'm very conservative on immigration, but given enough money" anyone can be attacked for not being pure enough.
Renfroe said: "We need candidates who will stand firmly for what they believe."
Immigration was an issue singled out by a GOP-commissioned "autopsy report" last year that analyzed Romney's loss to Obama. The report said Republicans must embrace "comprehensive immigration reform"— Washington shorthand for legalizing the immigration status of those living here illegally_to improve the GOP's strained relationship with the fast-growing Hispanic and Asian electorate.
The recommendations quickly hit resistance from congressional Republicans who rely on primary voters strongly opposed to "amnesty" for immigrants living here illegally.
The resistance might have softened if Republican lawmakers felt threatened by public disdain for the 2013 government shutdown or by worries of midterm election setbacks this fall. Instead, the shutdown issue faded, and Republicans are having a good primary season.
With all cylinders firing, "it's harder to hold that conversation about making the party a winner at the national level," said former Senate Republican staffer John Ullyot.
Republicans' talk of finding a winning strategy for presidential elections is sometimes drowned out by confident and staunchly conservative lawmakers coasting toward another re-election.
"The age-old conundrum is, do we change who we are to more adequately fit the electoral trends, or do we try to exert the leadership that will change the electoral trends?" said six-term Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz. "I am a firm believer in the latter."
Franks said he'd rather see Republicans lose presidential races than "play to the electorate what our polls tell us, regardless of principle."
Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Texas, said Republicans could risk eroding support if "we make drastic changes in our underlying policies" that led to their House majority.
Immigration is the most pivotal issue in his west Dallas district, Marchant said. While some Republicans outside the South find it easy to endorse comprehensive immigration reform, he said, "almost anything you put out has a second- or third-related cousin, and its name is amnesty."
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Preibus acknowledges the GOP is "a tale of two parties."
"We've got a midterm party that doesn't lose, and a presidential party that's having a hard time winning," he told The Associated Press in an interview. But Priebus declined to blame the split on policy, be it immigration or budget gridlock, that House Republicans have helped bring about. Instead, he said the party has largely conceded minority and younger voters by not engaging them directly in their communities. He touted the party's ongoing expansion of field offices aimed at reversing the trend.
But without a presidential race on the ballot this fall, those younger and minority voters are expected to turn out in reduced numbers.
The GOP primary winner is likely to win the 4th District's seat in Congress. The incumbent, Republican Rep. Cory Gardner, is stepping aside to challenge Democratic Sen. Mark Udall.
Republicans have had a dismal track record in Colorado over the past decade, losing three U.S. Senate races, two presidential contests and one gubernatorial election. The state's voting population is concentrated in a handful of counties around Denver, far from the 4th District's wheat farms and exurbs.
But Barbara Kirkmeyer, a Weld County Commissioner who is one of the four primary contenders, said she thinks the GOP's problem is tied to candidates, not its positions. She noted that a majority of the state's county commissioners, who represent mostly rural counties, are Republicans.
"We just need to put forward good candidates with experience who stick to their views," she said.
Babington reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Bill Barrow in New Orleans contributed to this report.