Blog No. 18 A Good Day for the Republican Party – and its Coming War with the Tea Party

Tuesday was a good day for the Republican Party because it brought the resounding victory of Governor Chris Christie. Christie demonstrated convincingly that, even in a decidedly “blue” state, a Republican can win with an appeal that crosses economic and ethnic boundaries. As the Wall Street Journal argued, Christie is a “conservative” and not a “moderate:”

The Governor has by and large governed as a conservative reformer. He vetoed a tax increase on millionaires and capped property taxes. He pushed tenure reforms that will make it easier to fire bad teachers, and he extracted far more pension reform out of a Democratic legislature than did Democratic Governors Jerry Brown in California or Andrew Cuomo in New York.

Good Day for Republicans

Nevertheless, Christie is no tea partier and criticized the defunding caper in Congress.  And while he is also generally conservative on social issues, Christie avoids strident rhetoric (and recently withdrew an appeal from a judicial decision bringing same sex marriage to New Jersey).  As the Journal further observed, “Republicans everywhere should study how he managed to win among non-Republican voters. You need them to become a majority party.”

It was also a good day for the Republican Party because of the defeat of tea party favorites in the Virginia Governor’s race and in a Republican primary in Alabama. In Virginia, the tea party candidate, Ken Cuccinelli, managed to lose to a badly flawed Democratic candidate, Terry McAuliffe, in a state which, until recently, had been solidly red. It is awkward for a Republican, even a RINO, to celebrate the loss of a Republican governorship and particularly so when the Democrat carries McAuliffe’s baggage. Cuccinelli, however, was a special case. In addition to his embrace of various tea party positions, he took a particularly hard line on immigration and his approach to social issues made him appear to be, as the Journal put it, “a charter member of the cast-the-first-stone coalition.”  Any election is subject to varying interpretations, but there are two key statistics here. Exit polls showed that 42% of the voters opposed the tea party and 84% of that segment voted for McAuliffe. If Cuccinelli had won, there can be little doubt that his victory would have been trumpeted by tea partiers across the country.

The Alabama primary was a race that, ordinarily, would have attracted little or no national attention. But this time was different. The national business community , which had once supported a number of tea party candidates, had now experienced second thoughts. For some time, business had seen tea partiers in Congress (the Oozlum caucus) slow or sidetrack legislation that business supported. But in the period leading up to and following the shutdown/debt ceiling, business became concerned by the damage to the economy that might flow from the maneuvers of the tea party. In the  Alabama  primary, the United States Chamber of Commerce contributed approximately $200,000 to the victory  of a mainstream conservative Republican over a challenger supported by the tea party. The challenger also drew significant support from evangelical groups drawn by his homophobic message (“I’m against homosexuals pretending like they’re married.”)

The political efforts by the Chamber of Commerce promise to be nationwide and the Chamber will not be alone. For example, David French, the chief lobbyist at the National Retail Federation conveyed a subtle but clear message when he said “I think the business community is looking at races and at primaries more closely than we have been in the past.” . In addition to established lobbying organizations, a new PAC has been organized for the express purpose of helping to fend off tea party challenges to more mainstream Republicans. The PAC, Defending Main Street, has been organized by Steve LaTourette, a former Ohio Congressman who describes the group’s mission rather bluntly: “Hopefully we’ll go into eight to 10 races and beat the snot out of them.”  LaTourette hopes to raise $8 million and promises, “We’re going to be very aggressive and we’re going to get in their faces.” LaTourette’s message may be inelegant , but it reflects a taste for combat that has been too long missing from the ranks of the RINOs. Moreover, centrist efforts within the party effort may not be merely defensive. In Michigan, The Washington Post reported, the business community is organizing to take on two incumbents who are tea party favorites.

The new-found determination to fight back against the tea party, and the outside groups who support hardline candidates, has even been observed in the sometimes phlegmatic Senate Minority leader, Mitch McConnell. McConnell faces his own primary challenge, but as Michael Gerson has noted, a report in the Lexington Herald-Leader,  indicates that McConnell  and the National Republican Senatorial Committee intend to fight not only the Senate Conservatives Fund (which endorsed the challenger to McConnell), but also Heritage Action for America, Madison Project, FreedomWorks and other outside groups. According to the Herald-Leader:

McConnell, along with Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and other Senate Republicans up for reelection next year, hope to win so big in their primaries that they eviscerate their opponents’ financial backers in the process.

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What’s different in the 2014 election cycle than last year or even 2010, is that McConnell’s NRSC has sought to unify Senate Republicans and take the fight to the fund raising groups instead of trying to appease them.

It would be naive to think that tea party adherents, let alone any of the well-funded outside groups, will be deterred or even seriously discouraged by Tuesday’s elections or by the growing signs of pushback by the establishment and the business community.

After the embarrassing failure of the shutdown/debt ceiling gambit, leaders of the tea party have taken pains to make it clear that they learned nothing from the failure of that gambit and that they are spoiling for yet another fight—with Republicans as much or more than with Democrats. An article by Stephen Moore in the Wall Street Journal made that clear. Mr. Moore (no RINO he) interviewed three prominent tea partiers and came away impressed by their determination:

The tea party’s answer to the GOP establishment threats: Bring it on—we aren’t backing down. That’s the message I gleaned from recent interviews with three of the movement’s most prominent leaders: Matt Kibbe of FreedomWorks, Amy Kremer of Tea Party Express and Jenny Beth Martin of Tea Party Patriots.

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Ms. Martin expresses sheer frustration with the final outcome: “What would you expect? This was the ruling elite”—Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid—”negotiating with the ruling elite”—Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Neither she nor Mr. Kibbe nor Ms. Martin acknowledges even the possibility that the government shutdown was a doomed strategy from the start. The tea party’s public-approval rating in the immediate aftermath of the government shutdown has plummeted to 14% in some polls, but these leaders seem unfazed.

Were their members demoralized by the GOP cave-in? No, Mr. Kibbe says, they’re “energized.” He says FreedomWorks’ fund raising has soared in recent weeks, and he expects that the group will raise up to $20 million this year. Other tea party organizations report similar surges in contributions.

Ms. Martin says her troops are also fired up. “I have never seen our members so angry at the elected Republicans—especially Sens. McConnell and [John] McCain.” There is more than a hint in these interviews that tea party groups will redouble their efforts to unseat Republicans who they think waved a white flag during the shutdown. “Taking on incumbent Republicans is part of our job,” Ms. Martin says.

Moore, however, also made it plain how worried he is about the consequences of the tea party’s crusade:

If these three activists are any guide, and I think they are, then the GOP is headed for an internal brawl in 2014, and perhaps beyond. In the recent debt-ceiling wrangle, the tea party seems not to have realized where that fight would lead. Before letting the clash with establishment Republicans escalate into all-out war, the tea party should step back and consider an uncomfortable fact. In the end, only one person will win that war. Her name is Hillary Clinton.

The inimitable Ted Cruz has appeared similarly undaunted, telling a cheering Texas tea party audience, “Look, the Democrats are feeling the heat.” As Michael Gerson wryly noted, however, “It is one thing to engage in Pickett’s Charge, another to describe it as a victory.”

It seems increasingly clear that a fight between the tea party (or Oozlum) wing of the Republican Party and the “establishment” of the party is inevitable. One irony of this development is that “RINOs” are no longer a particular target of our friends on the right: we have been subsumed into the establishment and our particular heresies are no longer a focus of concern. Another irony is that to the extent that the tea partiers direct their fire at the Republican Party, it becomes more obvious that in fact it is they who are “Republicans In Name Only.” Nevertheless, history demands that the RINO designation continue to belong to those of us who believe that the mission of Republican Party is not merely to obstruct, but to govern and to seek constructive solutions to national problems.

RINOs must be part of the effort to deal with the tea party. In the first instance, leaders of the Republican party should attempt to preserve the energy that the tea party folks have brought to the party. But the tea party members and followers, in and out of Congress, must be made to see that, while relentless ideology may feel good, it is not only bad policy but bad politics. And when all attempts at persuasion fail, RINOs–including —  must join the battles in the primaries to repel  further attempts to take-over  the party.

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In suggesting that Tuesday was a good day for Republicans, no mention was made of William de Blasio’s election as Mayor of New York City. That event should perhaps be regarded simply as New York being New York and we’ll see how the city fares as a laboratory for “Progressive” experimentation.

3 thoughts on “Blog No. 18 A Good Day for the Republican Party – and its Coming War with the Tea Party

  • Good analysis, Doug!

    Christie certainly got the attention of the media and should be congratulated on his very broad-based voter profile. It would be a mistake to automatically conflate his performance in NJ into a 2016 national election because Christie has succeeded in NJ because of his deep experience in and knowledge of local politics. Should he make a run in ’16, he will have to run two gauntlets: The GOP primary and, should he succeed there without being severely wounded in the process, the attack dogs leashed upon him by his opponent (following either the Obama or Clinton playbook, or both). I can only imagine how clever will the the non-PC attack of the PC believers but a good start is the Time cover “Elephant in the Room” Christie will be smeared as a big fat bully, and that is just the beginning. Who knows what demons could be loosed from a deep background check? At the end of the day, however, we cannot discount big Chris’s courage and apparent love for the game.

    One flickering light in the tunnel just appeared today with the New Republic profile of Elizabeth Warren as Clinton’s nightmare. That would be an interesting battle!

  • I agree, Doug. Hopefully Christie is not as socially conservative as the Wall Street Journal suggests, because right now he has my vote in ’16.

    Frank (only one degree of separation from a RINO)

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