The Coming GOP Civil War

The shutdown debacle seems destined to lead to a battle between the Tea Party and the more business oriented elements of the GOP

Elephants Fighting

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, 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.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. JoshB says:

    We keep hearing talk of the upcoming civil war (“it’s real this time!”) but it never actually happens. The GOP always falls in line.

  2. James in Silverdale, WA says:

    Meanwhile, Rome burns with an imbalance that endangers us all.

  3. PJ says:

    @James in Silverdale, WA:
    More tax cuts for the richest 1% will fix that problem in no time.
    Trickle down. economics.
    A rising tide lifts all boats.

  4. Woody says:

    I believe that ‘centrist’ Republicans are underestimating how deeply the base has been affected by the complete information monopoly the rightwing media enjoy. I continue to regard the political fervor of the base as akin to religious faith.

    Zealots can bear no compromise, and the rightwing media have provided their audience with what they desire: a totally Good v. Evil dichotomy, apocalyptic terminology, and a narrative packed with angels and demons (sometimes literally!). The more their audience tunes in (and buys in), the further out they’ll go as they profit from this structure.

    ‘Centrist’ Republicans (word in quotes because a solid conservative like Reagan would be cast out of the current party right quick) would be punished, not rewarded, for discarding the activist base. So they will continue to accommodate them, hoping the fever will cool off a bit. This will be tough to do so long as GOP voters stay completely with Fox.

  5. michael reynolds says:

    I used to say there were three wings to the GOP: Money, Bombs and Jesus.

    But today there are only two wings: The Crazies and The Cowards.

    Not a single GOP ex-president, not a single GOP ex-Treasury Secretary, had the balls to stand up and tell the truth about the debt ceiling. Ditto everyone in the Senate aside from John McCain. Ditto everyone in the House except Peter King.

    Crazies and the cowards who’ll let them destroy the party and the country. If you’re counting on those people to stand up for what’s right you have a long wait ahead of you.

  6. Barfour says:

    I agree with Michael Reynolds. While I wouldn’t call George H W Bush a coward, I think he should play a leadership role in the party, be the adult when other leaders in the party are not doing their job. He should call out the crazies who want to destroy the country he fought bravely for.

  7. jukeboxgrad says:

    There is no way out for the GOP. The more the dreaded Establishment tries to fight back against Cruz and Tea Party, the more the latter are empowered.

    Michael Reynolds has provided an excellent summary of the overall situation (link):

    [Republican] voters [have been] brainwashed by demagogues whose only real interest is in accumulating wealth by lying to suckers … [Republicans have] been fed a steady diet of bullsh!t by Fox News and talk radio and now they find themselves marooned, lost on Delusion Isle, separated from reality itself.

    The “conservative entertainment complex” (Frum’s words) pretends to care about winning elections and achieving policy objectives, but that’s a charade. Their profits are arguably higher when the GOP loses. The GOP’s death spiral is irreversible because the forces in the GOP which care about electoral success are no match for this entertainment industry, which has taken on a life of its own.

    Cruz is not planning to become president of the United States. He just wants to be president of the tea party, and he’s already achieved that goal.

  8. Todd says:

    I’ll say it again, the Tea Party will either succeed in totally destroying the Republican brand, or get frustrated and sulk off to form a real 3rd party. Either way, they’ll be marginalized over time. But it’s going to be pretty ugly (even uglier than we’ve already seen) while they’re on their way down.

  9. superdestroyer says:

    Who cares about infighting in the irrelevant Republican Party. No matter who wins or loses, the Republicans will still be irrelevant. No matter what the outcome is, the U.S. will still be a one party state, more than 50% of the voters will be automatic Democratic Party voters, taxes will go higher, spending will go even higher, the federal, state, and local governments will grow, and the private sector will shrink.

    I find it odd that wonks and pundits can convince themselves that the Republicans Party is still relevant enough that what the blocks inside the party does is worth thinking and writing about.

  10. superdestroyer says:


    The centrist Republicans are being punished for the eight years of the failure and incompetence that was the GW Bush Adminstration. The establishment Republicans got their man elected promising smaller government and a reduction of the reach and scope of government. After eight years of the incompetence of GW Bush, the deficits were bigger, the government was bigger, people were being treated like criminals while at an airport, and every foreign policy initiative was a failure.

    If the establishment Republicans want to make peace with the Tea Party types, the establishment needs to throw GW Bush under the bus and appeal more to the middle class rather than the cheap labor, open borders, big government liking Wall Street types.

  11. john personna says:

    The interesting thing about the GWB years is that they soured for real moderates early on. But Bush had the then-zealots backing him. The now-zealots want to pretend it has nothing to do with them …

    It’s a memory hole.

    Witness the seamless transition of Rush and Fox from one zealotry to the next.

  12. superdestroyer says:

    @john personna:

    The moderates liked the increased spending, growing the size and scope government, and the expanding regulatory issues, pork barrel spending, and corporate welfare. What most of the so-called moderates complained about it that Bush did not raise taxes enough to pay for all of the programs that all of those moderates wanted (See Burce Bartlett) or that Bush screwed up the neo-con agenda of doing whatever is good for Israel that people like David Frum pushes by being so incompetent in foreign affairs.

  13. Gold Star for Robot Boy says:

    I think it was Josh Barro who pointed out the TPers would be giddy if GHWB were to voice disapproval of their actions. They HATE the guy.

  14. Steve V says:

    @john personna: Actually, the talk radio crowd (which basically is the voice of the tea party types) spends a decent amount of time talking about the GW Bush years as the good old days … compared to the disastrous Obama years, of course. They’re trying to rehabilitate his reputation. In talk radio land, all GOP presidents are good presidents (although no one can live up to Reagan and they all had lapses from “true conservatism”) and all Democratic presidents are uniformly terrible. To them, Obama is the greatest evil this country has ever known.

    That’s why I kind of think the whole rise of the tea party was sort of an accident, an unintended consequence of the viciousness of the demonization of Obama. In reality, Obama’s pretty middle of the road. But to them, he’s so evil everything he says is terrible and everything he wants is socialism. Rick Santelli ranted against the stimulus as the worst thing ever (even though GWB had engaged in stimulus multiple times with nary a peep from them), Obamacare was characterized as an abomination (even though it originated as a Republican idea, with nary a peep of criticism of it at the time) and voila, the tea party was born.

  15. Woody says:


    No way, dude. I said “religious fervor” and I meant it.

    Throwing GWBush under the bus would be like stoning Elijah or Elisha.

    Any doublethink falls under the category of God’s will and a Job test. And Murdoch is there to reap the wind (accounting for the smell, maybe).

  16. Kylopod says:

    According to a 2010 poll, a majority of self-identified Tea Partiers have a favorable view of Bush. That should tell you everything about the the TP’s alleged independence from the Bush years.

  17. jukeboxgrad says:

    the TP’s alleged independence from the Bush years

    A related fact: Paul Ryan was embraced as a tea party hero even though he voted to support GWB every single time GWB wrote a huge check that was unfunded.

  18. Bernard King says:

    Allow me to present the perspective of someone who sort of relates to the Tea Party wing of the GOP. I say sort of, because I’m not even sure exactly what the Tea Party is or what it stands for. But I do know the Tea Party is focused on restraining federal spending – and that is where I agree with it.

    I am 35 years old, and have been a conservative my entire life. For me the problem in D.C. has always been too much taxation and too much spending. All other issues take a backseat. I remember Bush 41’s “no new taxes pledge” and how he broke it. I remember the Contract with America in 1994, and how fiscal conservatives made real reforms in the 90’s. And then after Clinton left and Bush came to office, I trusted that the GOP would seize the opportunity and trim down the wasteful spending and eliminate/scale back at least some of the pointless Federal agencies, e.g. Department of Education, EPA, HUD, FDA, etc. However, instead of fiscal conservatism, Bush 43’s administration saw government spending skyrocket & even more agencies created. Yes, some of that spending was justified in response to 9/11, but Medicare Part D, No Child Left Behind, TARP, and many other spending sprees were not.

    So after 8 years and $5.5 trillion added to the national debt, I realized that I was being suckered. I realized that as much as Republicans talk about cutting the size of government, they not only failed to do so when they controlled both houses & the White House – they actually expanded government at unprecedented rates!

    So now comes Obama and the era of $1 trillion deficits. With the rest of us struggling to recover from a weak economy, the new orgy of Federal spending has made D.C. the wealthiest metro area in the nation. Conservatives like me are sick of it, but we no longer trust the Republican Party to cut spending like we used to. As a result, we elect a new batch of House Republicans in 2010 and send them off to Washington with a clear mission: Cut, cut, cut & then cut some more.

    Within 7 months this newly controlled GOP house extracted the sequester cuts from Obama. Even though these were not even actual cuts (they were cuts to the rate of spending increases), that was at least something. Despite the misguided complaints from some in the GOP about how the sequester cuts need to be undone, we stuck to our guns.

    Then in 2012, every Republican up for election pledged to do whatever it took to stop Obamacare. But six months later, only Ted Cruz has a plan to stop it. Was his plan painless? Of course not – but at least he has a plan! Rather than uphold the promises they made to voters, a portion of the GOP thought fighting to stop Obamacare was too uncomfortable and they preferred to just surrender. If this was their strategy all along, then Boehner and the House leadership should have just ignored the Hastert rule and surrendered immediately. Holding on the shutdown however required a fortitude that Boehner does not possess, and he caved. Cruz’s strategy would have worked to achieve a delay in Obamacare (at least) had the GOP been willing to hold the line on the partial shutdown. (I want to point out that the shutdown strategy was distinct from the debt ceiling issue. I agree that not raising the debt ceiling would be a reckless act.)

    My point is that the Boehner crowd is like the GOP under Bush 43, i.e. they are comfortable criticizing federal spending and campaigning on the issue, but they don’t want to put their words into action. Now some may say this is just impossible until we get a Republican in the White House and take back the Senate. I have two responses to this argument. First, this is like an excuse I keep hearing from an employee who wants to avoid doing an unpleasant task at all costs. Quit making excuses and just do it. Second, thanks to our Constitution, we have the power of the purse and thus the power to change it now even though we only control the house. Unless you think Obama would prefer that Federal employees not get paid for three months straight, he will cave. The only thing that the GOP lacks is the courage to fight and hold the line.

  19. Good.

    Let them fight.

    Let them burn down everything they’ve built on their Christian-based hate. I’m all for it.

  20. superdestroyer says:

    @Christopher Bowen:

    But then what do you see as the future of politics with a one party state? HOw high will taxes go? How big will the government grow? What new entitlements will be created? How will be the winners and losers if the Republicans tear themselves apart and the U.S. is left with one relevant political party.

  21. steve s says:

    If superdestroyer thinks Dems will grow government spending more than Repubs, he’s either ignorant of history, or terrible at math. Or both.

  22. Jr says:

    @Barfour: HW is on his last legs and GWB legacy is shot… I can see why they don’t turn to ex-GOP presidents.

  23. Grumpy Realist says:

    @Bernard King: So because you’re worried about government spending you would prefer to burn down the financial system?
    Well, that’s one way of fixing the problem. I don’t think that pulling a financial Götterdämmerung is going to make the business side of the US very happy.

    I’d also like to point out that subsistence farming doesn’t allow for that high a level of GNP. Or medical care. And if you want to see what happens when we don’t have such “useless agencies” such as the EPA–I suggest you read up on what happens in China. Unless you like living in a toxic waste dump. Because, after all, FREEDOM!

  24. al-Ameda says:

    @Bernard King:

    Unless you think Obama would prefer that Federal employees not get paid for three months straight, he will cave. The only thing that the GOP lacks is the courage to fight and hold the line.

    Umm …. We were just there, people like Ted Cruz miscalculated – Obama did not blink.

    The only thing the GOP lacks is a sense of the fiduciary responsibility of every legislator to run government without calling into question the motives and abilities of our legislators and governing officials. The GOP, by attempting to leverage a default to advance an animus toward the president and the ACA law, showed that they’re not quite to be trusted.

  25. anjin-san says:

    @ Bernard King

    For me the problem in D.C. has always been too much taxation

    Taxes are at historic lows. Do you really not see the relationship between this and record deficits?

  26. jukeboxgrad says:

    Taxes are at historic lows.

    Correct. FY12 revenue was 15.2% of GDP. Reagan’s average: 18%.

  27. al-Ameda says:


    The moderates liked the increased spending, growing the size and scope government, and the expanding regulatory issues, pork barrel spending, and corporate welfare.

    Moderates? Frankly, I do not remember conservative objections when Bush waged 2 wars (both of which were completely deficit-funded) while cutting taxes twice and widening the budget deficit.

  28. superdestroyer says:


    Of course the big business, cheap labor Republicans likes the massive deficit spending that occurred under GW Bush. The deficit spending gave the moderate Republicans more ways to make money off the government without having to pay more taxes. That is why the cheap labor Republicans are pushing for Jeb Bush: They like incompetent president who gives them money.

  29. Grewgills says:

    @Bernard King:
    Why is it worth burning down the government to delay national implementation of Romneycare?

  30. Grewgills says:

    Are you intentional or unintentional satire? I can’t tell.

  31. al-Ameda says:


    The deficit spending gave the moderate Republicans more ways to make money off the government without having to pay more taxes.

    Please, it is conservatives who often want governmental action without having to pay the true cost of it.

    Two questions:
    (1) How many conservatives did NOT want to go to war in Iraq?
    Okay that was quick … and
    (2) of those conservatives who supported the wars, how many thought it a good idea to impose a sur-tax to pay for the war on a non-deficit-funded basis?
    Okay, that was quick too.

  32. john personna says:


    A good Atlantic piece on the GWB memory hole.

  33. Bernard King says:


    It has nothing to do with animus toward the President, it was about extracting concessions (e.g. ACA delay) by taking a hard line negotiating position. The GOP has no fiduciary responsibility to anything other than their own good judgment.

  34. Bernard King says:


    A 17% partial government shutdown is not “burning down the government.”

    Delaying the ACA until 2014 would have been worth the small political fallout.

  35. Bernard King says:


    It makes no sense to evaluate the level of taxation as a percentage of GDP. The size of government should be justified on its own merits. Just because Apple has a banner year doesn’t mean we need a bigger bureaucracy.

  36. Bernard King says:

    @Grumpy Realist:

    And if you want to see what happens when we don’t have such “useless agencies” such as the EPA–I suggest you read up on what happens in China.

    You’re not seriously suggesting that China is the dire example of what happens when their is too little government are you?

    I’m pretty sure the EPA could do little more than the Ministry of Environmental Protection in curbing pollution. More government is not the answer.