The Coming GOP Civil War
Now that the great shutdown/debt ceiling crisis of 2013 is behind us, well at least delayed for the moment until 2014, attention is being turned to the political fallout from the what happened over the past three weeks. The most obvious questions, of course, center around what all of this might mean for Republicans going forward, especially in the mid-term elections next year. Before we get there, though, there’s the bigger question of what it might mean for Republican Party unity. Even as we were heading for the shutdown, there were signs that more “establishment” segments of the party were reluctant to play along with the “Defund Obamacare” strategy that Ted Cruz and his allies had spent the summer pushing. As the shutdown dragged on, and the GOP’s poll numbers grew worse and worse, those divisions started to become more apparent, and the criticism of Cruz and others in the Tea Party wing of the party became more apparent. With the immediate battle over and attention turning to a budget battle that may or may not result in the nation being in the exact same position it was in September, various factions in the GOP are making it clear that the internal battle is far from over:
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Republicans’ clear defeat in the budget-debt brawl has widened the rift between the Grand Old Party and the blossoming tea party movement that helped revive it.
Implored by House Speaker John Boehner to unite and “fight another day” against President Barack Obama and Democrats, Republicans instead intensified attacks on one another, an ominous sign in advance of more difficult policy fights and the 2014 midterm elections.
The tea party movement spawned by the passage of Obama’s health care overhaul three years ago put the GOP back in charge of the House and in hot pursuit of the law’s repeal. The effort hit a wall this month in the budget and debt fight, but tea partyers promised to keep up the effort.
That divide defined the warring Republican factions ahead of the midterm elections, when 35 seats in the Democratic-controlled Senate and all 435 seats in the Republican-dominated House will be on the ballot. In the nearer term, difficult debates over immigration and farm policy loom, along with another round of budget and debt talks.
The animosity only intensified as lawmakers fled Washington this week for a few days’ rest.
The Twitterverse crackled with threats, insults and the names of the 27 GOP senators and 87 GOP House members who voted for the leadership’s agreement that reopened the government and raised the nation’s borrowing limit. Republicans got none of their demands, keeping only the spending cuts they had won in 2011.
Within hours, TeaParty.net tweeted a link to the 114 lawmakers, tagging each as a Republican in name only who should be turned out of office: “Your 2014 #RINO hunting list!”
“We shouldn’t have to put up with fake conservatives like Mitch McConnell,” read a fundraising letter Thursday from the Tea Party Victory Fund Inc.
Another group, the Senate Conservatives Fund, announced it was endorsing McConnell’s GOP opponent, Louisville, Ky., businessman Matt Bevin.
This all sounds very familiar, of course. In both 2010 and 2012, Tea Party groups invested heavily in GOP Primaries across the nation to push candidates sympathetic to their agenda and were astoundingly successful. On the House side, their successes led to the the election of Tea Party stalwarts such as Justin Amash and Jason Chaffetz, along with other candidates with, shall we say, less reputable records such as Allen West and Joe Walsh. On the Senate side, they were successful in pushing forward candidates such as Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle, Joe Miller, and Richard Mourdock, and in largely ending the political careers of long-serving Republicans such as Mike Castle, Utah’s Bill Bennett, and Indiana’s Richard Lugar. Where they were less than successful, though, was in actually winning those Senate elections and, with justifiable cause, many Republican political pundits hold the movement responsible for not grabbing control of the Senate in 2010, and for actually losing seats in 2012.
With battles gearing up for 2014, though, it’s becoming apparent that mainline conservatives are not going to stand back and let the Tea Party set the agenda, or pick the candidates:
A battle for control of the Republican Party has erupted as an emboldened Tea Party moved to oust senators who voted to reopen the government while business groups mobilized to defeat allies of the small-government movement.
“We are going to get engaged,” said Scott Reed, senior political strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “The need is now more than ever to elect people who understand the free market and not silliness.” The chamber spent $35.7 million on federal elections in 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based group that tracks campaign spending.
Meanwhile, two Washington-based groups that finance Tea Party-backed candidates said yesterday they’re supporting efforts to defeat Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran, who voted this week for the measure ending the 16-day shutdown and avoiding a government debt default. Cochran, a Republican seeking a seventh term next year, faces a challenge in his party’s primary from Chris McDaniel, a state senator.
McDaniel, who announced his candidacy yesterday, “is not part of the Washington establishment and he has the courage to stand up to the big spenders in both parties,” Matt Hoskins, executive director of the Senate Conservatives Fund, said in a statement supporting him.
“The strategy of primarying people like Thad Cochran is more of the same and it means more Senate minorities in the future,” said David French, the top lobbyist in Washington for the National Retail Federation. “I question the judgment there.”
French said the federation would back candidates in Republican primaries. Neither he nor Reed would specify which incumbents they’d support.
“There are incumbent Republicans who are on the wrong side of some of these issues,” said French, whose organization spent more than $300,000 on races in 2012. “There are definitely some incumbent Republicans we’re not going to support again.”
The chamber has challenged the Tea Party before and Reed said they will follow a similar strategy next year.
Leading up to the 2012 Republican primary, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Michigan Chamber of Commerce paid for television ads backing Representative Fred Upton, chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Upton was fending off a challenge from Jack Hoogendyk, a former state representative backed by the Tea Party-aligned FreedomWorks, which posted online a “Down with Upton” petition. Upton won with 67 percent of the vote compared with 33 percent for Hoogendyk.
With the battle now joined, you can expect more investment like this from groups like the Chamber of Commerce, especially if polling continues to show that the Tea Party brand is hurting the GOP and that their shutdown strategy is harming the party as a whole. The important question is what impact this is likely to have on Republicans in the House who aren’t part of the Tea Party, but many of whom have been cowered into sticking with the movement’s agenda out of fear of a primary challenge from the right. Would promises of increased support, financial and otherwise, from groups like the Chamber of Commerce make it more likely that they’d be free to defy future efforts to pull off another shutdown stunt three months from now, for example? Or, will the populist fury of the Tea Party keep them in line given that many of them could be facing primaries mere months from the time when they’ll have to vote on these issues again in January?
Only time will tell, but what’s clear at this point is that the epic disaster of the past three weeks has left real open wounds in the GOP that aren’t going to heal any time soon.