After the budget standoff ended in crushing defeat this month and the political damage reports began to pile up for Republicans, one longtime party leader after another stepped forward to chastise their less seasoned, tea party-inspired colleagues who drove the losing strategy.
“Let’s face it: It was not a good maneuver,”’ said Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the senior Senate Republican and supporter of the deal that ended the showdown. “And that’s when you’ve got to have the adults running the thing.”
At around the same time, roughly a thousand miles away in Mississippi, a 42-year-old Republican state senator, Chris McDaniel, was announcing his bid to take the seat one of those “adults,” Sen. Thad Cochran, 75, a six-term incumbent and the very picture of the Republican Old Guard whose vote to end the standoff McDaniel called “more of a surrender than a compromise.”
Insurgent conservative groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund, the Madison Project and Club for Growth immediately announced their support for McDaniel, chairman of the Mississippi state Senate’s Conservative Coalition and a former Christian-radio host, providing an early glimpse of what the next three years are likely to hold for the Republican Party.
The budget fight that led to the first government shutdown in 17 years did not just set off a round of recriminations among Republicans over who was to blame for the politically disastrous standoff. It heralded a very public escalation of a far more consequential battle for control of the Republican Party, a confrontation between tea party conservatives and establishment Republicans that will play out in the congressional and presidential primaries in 2014 and 2016 but has been simmering since President George W. Bush’s administration, if not before.
In dozens of interviews, elected officials, strategists and donors from both wings of the party were unusually blunt in drawing the intraparty battle lines, suggesting that the time for an open feud over the Republican future has arrived.
“It’s civil war in the GOP,” declared Richard Viguerie, the veteran conservative warrior who helped invent the political direct mail business.
The moment draws comparisons to some of the biggest fights of recent Republican Party history — the 1976 clash between the insurgent faction of activists who supported Ronald Reagan for president that year and the moderate party leaders who stuck by President Gerald Ford, or the split between the conservative Goldwater and moderate Rockefeller factions in 1964.
William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, argued that those earlier squabbles “all worked out OK” with what some se as the conservative movement’s greatest success: Reagan’s 1980 election and his two terms as president.
Far from being chastened by the failure to achieve any of the concessions from President Barack Obama they had sought, conservative grass-roots activists are now ratcheting up their effort to rid the party of the sort of timorous Republicans who, they said, doomed their effort to defund the health law from the start.
Jim DeMint, the former South Carolina senator and current Heritage Foundation president, is helping to lead the insurgents as a founder of the Senate Conservatives Fund.
His followers “represent the voices of a lot of Americans who really think it’s time to draw a line in the sand to stop this reckless spending and the growth of the federal government,” he said.
But the party’s establishment leaders now have what they regard as proof that the activist wing’s tactics do not — and will not — work.
“The 20 or 30 members of the House who have been driving this aren’t a majority, and too often the strategy — the tactic — was, ‘Let’s just lay down a marker and force people to be with us,’” said senior Republican strategist Karl Rove. “Successful movements inside parties are movements that persuade people,” he added. “The question is, can they persuade? And thus far the jury’s out.”
Unlike in the last two elections when they were caught off guard by grass-roots candidates, who lost otherwise winnable races, the establishment’s most powerful elements are going to try to pre-empt another round of embarrassing defeats.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce will decide which candidates to support in the 2014 midterms based in part on whether they voted for the deal on Wednesday to end the shutdown and raise the debt ceiling.
The leading establishment “super PAC” co-founded by Rove, American Crossroads, has already started a new initiative called the Conservative Victory Project that is working to head off Republican challengers whose victories in primaries, in its determination, would put party seats — or potential party seats — at risk of falling to Democrats in general elections.
But the jockeying for supremacy is making some longtime lawmakers uneasy.
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said the internal squabbles could weaken the party’s ability to wage future battles against Democrats. “You just can’t win these fights over a long period of time if you’re fighting over how to have the fight,” he said.
At its heart, this fight is the latest chapter of a long-running struggle for dominance between a generally pro-business, center-right bloc that seeks to tame but not exactly dismantle Washington, and populist conservatives who call for more extreme measures to shrink government.
Though the election and re-election of Obama may have radicalized many conservatives, the base’s fury has its roots in the two terms of his predecessor, Bush, whose expansion of Medicare, proposed immigration overhaul and 2008 bank bailout left many conservatives distraught.
“People just saw a party that had wandered away from its soul,” said Michael Needham, chief executive of Heritage Action, an offshoot of the Heritage Foundation and perhaps the most influential lobby group now among congressional Republicans.
Divergent reactions to Mitt Romney’s defeat at the hands of Obama last year reignited a debate from after Obama’s defeat of Sen. John McCain in 2008. Some establishment Republicans argued that the primary season helped drive Romney to take more conservative positions than he otherwise would have on issues like immigration. Grass-roots activists asserted that he lost because he did not truly embrace the conservative principles.
That argument has resurfaced this year in the Virginia governor’s race. The state’s attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, a tea party enthusiast who yet is accused by some activists of running an overly safe campaign, is trailing Terry McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chairman, in every published poll.
Mainline Republicans point out that Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey is on track to win re-election in a landslide. “Cuccinelli represents the party of no, and that’s not going to do so well in Virginia,” said Alex Castellanos, a longtime Republican strategist. “Christie is somebody who represents straight talk and a change from business as usual, and he’s going to do very well.”
The more important intraparty fight will begin playing out chiefly in Senate primaries next year, with the targeting of incumbents like Cochran; Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader; Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and perhaps Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Pat Roberts of Kansas. Their perceived roles as moderating drags on tea party-inspired senators like Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah in the shutdown negotiations has galvanized grass-roots organizations to elect more such Republicans.
“The lesson is, we need more reinforcements,” said Daniel Horowitz, an official with the Madison Project. Groups like his are more reliant on smaller-dollar donations than their rivals.
The Chamber of Commerce and Crossroads, for example, can summon large amounts from donors across the business spectrum, many of whom are expressing concern about the latest turn of events on Capitol Hill and are intent on avoiding nominees like Richard Mourdock of Indiana, who unseated longtime Sen. Richard Lugar but lost in the general election after making a damaging comment on rape.
“I have seen the problems in some of these primaries where we’ve knocked off some pretty good candidates and it resulted in nothing for us — like Lugar,” said Mel Sembler, a Florida real estate developer who is a donor and fundraiser for Crossroads.
Spencer Zwick, the chief fundraiser for Romney’s campaign, said individual donors told him they were eager to help the establishment wing’s cause however they can. “There are a lot of individual donors who were supportive of Mitt’s campaign who are quietly waiting to figure out how they can play, and I think there’s a lot of appetite to make sure that we nominate candidates who can win general elections,” he said.
The tea party-aligned groups say that they have an established track record of winning primaries against Republican rivals with deep corporate backing. “We’ve always been outspent by orders of magnitude,” said Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks. And they do have some big donors, like the multimillionaire investor Foster Friess, who backed a failed primary challenge to Hatch in Utah in 2012 and recently indicated he would consider new “opportunities to put young dynamic people in.”
But two stalwart backers of the movement, the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, did not support the shutdown strategy, and people with knowledge of their thinking say they are unlikely to engage in primary efforts against incumbents.
Such reluctance illustrates a central challenge for the insurgents in their effort to take over the party: unity within the faction itself. The primary challenge to McConnell from a wealthy Louisville businessman, Matt Bevin, offers a vivid example of how the tea party movement’s hand is weakened when its leaders do not rally around shared goals.
Former Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska suggested this month that she would work to help defeat McConnell, and the Senate Conservatives Fund recently announced it was backing Bevin. But the Club for Growth was still assessing the race because, its president Chris Chocola said, Bevin is “an unproven candidate.”
And when McConnell’s race came up at a recent meeting in New Orleans of the conservative umbrella group the Council on National Policy, one participant there said, the members were torn: Some fear Bevin might lose a general election race against Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, a Democrat whom wealthy Hollywood interests have pledged to finance.
Regardless of what happens in next year’s midterms, the fight for control of the Republican Party will play most dramatically in the contest for the 2016 presidential nomination, for which Cruz is widely considered a potential contender. If a candidate from the insurgent wing is to defy recent history and seize the nomination, he or she will have to run in a fashion that, organizationally, more closely resembles the sophisticated campaigns typically waged by establishment hopefuls.
Anyone who hopes to compete will have to be “a prolific fundraiser, build an organization in 30 states simultaneously and have to win the support of other elected officials,” said longtime conservative strategist Ralph Reed.
Further, the tea party forces lack the sort of singular leadership of a figure like Reagan. And besides overturning the health law and generally seeking to halt the expansion of the federal government, the hard-liners do not have a cohesive policy plan.
“You have to have a specific agenda,” said Jeff Bell, policy director in the 1976 Reagan campaign, citing the supply-side tax cuts that were so in vogue with Republicans of that era. “That’s a missing element in today’s conservative revolt.”
What some Republicans hope is that they can find a candidate who is acceptable to the insurgents and will benefit from their energy but will also be able to win over swing voters.