Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., speaks Saturday, June 6, 2015, at the National Pachyderm Convention at the Chattanooga Marriott.

The South Carolina Republican leading a congressional probe critical of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says his party needs to do a better job of winning over voters if it hopes to defeat Clinton or any other Democrat to win back the White House next year.

U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., told a GOP gathering in Chattanooga on Saturday that Republicans appear to be gaining strength, as demonstrated by their control of the U.S. House and Senate and a majority of state legislatures and governorships.

"But we only won the popular vote in one of the past six presidential elections," Gowdy told members of the National Federation of Pachyderm Clubs, a GOP support organization, during their biennial convention Saturday. "If you want to fundamentally change the direction of our country -- and the polls say that 70 percent of you do -- you have to win the presidency and control the executive branch."

Gowdy urged Republicans to do less criticism and more persuasion to win over undecided voters. He urged GOP supporters to tell their friends and neighbors that the GOP offers more hope and a better way to peace and prosperity.

"As a prosecutor for 16 years, I never tried to insult or criticize the members of a jury I was in front of," Gowdy said. "And if I had lost five of the last six cases I tried, I would re-evaluate how I was doing my job."

But as chairman of the House Select Committee investigating the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, Gowdy has torn into the Obama administration and Clinton's State Department over the incident that killed four Americans and injured 10 others. Gowdy said the U.S. government failed to adequately protect or aid the Libyan diplomatic post when it was attacked and then initially misled the public about the causes of the terrorist attacks.

Gowdy's panel discovered Clinton regularly used a private email account as secretary of state and deleted thousands of what she said were personal messages on her email server. Gowdy said he hopes to wrap up the investigation "sometime in 2015 if the panel gets cooperation from the administration."

"In March, I asked for the emails of 10 seventh-floor principals of the State Department and so far I have gotten one-tenth of what I requested from just one of them," he said in an interview with the Times Free Press. "The only thing preventing me from having a conversation with her (Clinton) and being able to wrap up the investigation is the State Department's refusal to produce what everyone concedes are relevant documents."

The congressional probe is the eighth investigation of the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks on two U.S. diplomatic compounds in Benghazi that led to the deaths of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three others.

U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the select committee, has criticized Gowdy for running a "political charade" that has already cost more than $3 million and is being "dragged out in order to attack" Clinton, the perceived front runner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Chattanooga, who was elected to the U.S. House in 2010 along with Gowdy and recruited him to come to the two-day Pachyderm convention, called the South Carolina Republican "a standout" who is "modest, honest and principled."

"Whether you are Hillary Clinton or any other lefty out there, you better beware because Trey Gowdy is out there and he is going to get you," Fleischmann told the GOP gathering.

In turn, Gowdy praised Fleischmann, who serves on the Appropriations Committee that he said helped the Benghazi probe by threatening to withhold State Department funding if the agency didn't comply with the committee's subpoenas.

"If you want to provide oversight and get the attention of the executive branch, step on the air hose called appropriations," Gowdy said. "We tried public shame, threats, subpoenas and letters, but they didn't work. What worked is when we partnered with our friends on Appropriations and let the State Department and other agencies know that your money will be cut if you do not provide us with documents."

Contact Dave Flessner at or at 757-6340.