SPRINGFIELD -- An Illinois Republican official resigned from his leadership post Thursday amid outrage over an email in which he berated a biracial former Miss America as a "street walker" who could fill a law firm's "minority quota" if she loses her bid for Congress.
The controversy, involving a county GOP leader in central Illinois who campaigned for U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, created a new rift for Republicans already struggling to expand and attract women and minority voters.
Davis demanded the resignation of the county official, Jim Allen, after learning of what he called a "wrong, appalling and incredibly demeaning" email targeting Erika Harold, Davis' opponent in the March 2014 Republican primary.
Sent to Republican blogger Doug Ibendahl, the email referred to Harold as a "street walker" and "love child" of Democrats and suggested the Harvard graduate could fill a "minority quota" at a law firm should she lose the race.
Ibendahl, also a former party official, posted the email Wednesday on his website.
"I hope some of these bullies learn a lesson from this," he told the Associated Press on Thursday. "Our party has a huge branding problem nationwide, especially in Illinois. This guy's attitude sets us back. It's confirmation as to why women and minorities don't take the Republican party seriously."
Allen apologized for his message in a brief statement to the (Champaign) News-Gazette and resigned from his post Thursday afternoon.
Harold released a statement, saying Allen's comments have "no place within public discourse."
Champaign County GOP Chairman Habeeb Habeeb -- who is staying impartial in the 13th District GOP primary -- was so offended by the comments he left a message for Harold and personally apologized to her father.
"I don't see that kind of vitriol in everyday Republican circles," Habeeb said. "The party has changed and these things just set us backward."
The incident highlights the rocky path the national party has forged in recent months, with comments such as Allen's derailing efforts by the GOP to become more of a "big tent" organization.
After performing poorly at the polls in November, Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus released a "prescription" for the party's future. Along with changing its tone on social issues to win over younger and minority voters, the party would need to make a concerted effort to elevate more women, Priebus said.
Along with state party officials, Priebus on Thursday joined in the chorus calling for Allen's resignation, via Twitter.
"Chairman Allen's astonishingly offensive views have no place in politics. He should apologize and resign immediately," Preibus wrote.
Harold seeks to be catalyst for change in the GOP. When she announced her bid earlier this month, Harold said she believes she can help expand the party's voting base and reach people who don't traditionally vote Republican.
Former Illinois GOP Chairman Pat Brady, who stepped down last month after coming under fire from state central committeemen over his support of gay marriage, said comments like Allen's are an unfortunate distraction.
Without a Republican governor in Illinois or a Republican president to act as the party's "mouthpiece," Brady said, these comments only get more traction. But they also create a sort of wag-the-dog situation, working to block the election of Republican to those roles.
Davis' congressional district in central Illinois has been targeted by the Democratic Congressional Committee as a pickup seat in 2014.
Davis, a freshman, in November defeated emergency room doctor David Gill by approximately 1,000 votes. It was Gill's fourth bid for Congress.
"We do need to welcome folks from all walks of life, regardless of where they come from what they look like and what their policy preference is," said Davis said. "There are no excuses for his behavior. I am not making any. I sure hope it doesn't affect my campaign."