Frenemies

02.10.14

GOP Base Would Rather Take Out Incumbent Republicans Than Beat Democrats

Interviews with those on Capitol Hill and in the conservative movement reveal antipathy toward each other that could cost the party the midterms.

With the president’s approval rating low, the economy faltering and Obamacare dropping consumers from their health care plans by the day, one would think the GOP’s prospects would be strong heading into the 2014 midterm elections. But this may not remain the case. 

In the past few weeks, I’ve noticed a widening rift between the Republican establishment and the Tea Party activists who swept John Boehner into the House Speaker seat and put Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell within striking distance of a majority to effectively cement President Obama’s lame duck status.  

In conversations with members of Congress, lobbyists, and the chattering class on television–none of whom wished to speak on the record–many grassroots activists would rather take out an incumbent GOP officeholder in a primary challenge for perceived disloyalty to the base at the cost of Democrats winning the seat.  That this switch of support by grassroots activists would occur less than four years after the GOP rode a massive wave of voter disillusionment with Washington is fascinating. The question is, what was the triggering event that created hostility between many conservative members of Congress and their constituents who elected them?

Not surprisingly, I’ve discovered that the effort–or perceived lack thereof--to defund Obamacare late last year served as the catalyst in which grassroots activists decided their conservative allies in Washington had gone native by increasing the size and scope of government without a meaningful fight to eliminate the Affordable Care Act.  Last week, a prominent activist from a well-known and well-financed advocacy group told me:

What was once a happy collaboration united to defeating Democrats and Obama’s agenda has turned into a nascent civil war for control of the Republican Party.

“I think the thing that set many of these groups off was the repeated promises by [House Majority Leader] Cantor and [Senate Minority Leader] McConnell to repeal Obamacare.  When the time came to fight, they caved to the Democrats and told us they would fight hard the next time. Total B.S. that we’re not buying anymore.”

Not surprisingly, a senior Republican close to the House Leadership saw the conflict in a different manner.  He told me: “You can vote with these guys 99% of the time and the one vote you are seen as being against them, they try to take you out in a primary. I’m glad [House Speaker] Boehner finally told them off.”  Despite the Speaker’s decision to effectively shelve immigration reform efforts until after the 2014 midterm elections, tempers remain close to the boiling point on both sides.

Some, like Media Research Center head Brent Bozell, aren’t waiting for the midterm elections to act.  Ostensibly, Bozell founded the 501c(4) group ForAmerica (www.ForAmerica.org) with the lofty principles to: “[R]einvigorate the American people with the principles of American exceptionalism….” What it appears to do in practice, however, is seek to replace Republican Leaders in the House and Senate through a “Dump the Leadership” petition drive.  Prominently displayed on the group’s homepage is a collage with the likeness of Boehner, Cantor, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, McConnell, Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn, and John Thune, chairman of the Senate Republican Conference. A tagline above the men’s reads: “America Deserves Better. It’s Time to Dump the Leadership.” 

501c(4) groups are explicitly prohibited from advocating for the election or defeat of any specific candidates yet last summer For America began running a series of ads in Kentucky and prominent online outlets seeking to target McConnell for the 2014 election.  Could McConnell, a fierce opponent of limits on funding for federal elections, face a difficult path back to the Senate with groups such as FreedomWorks and ForAmerica urging for his defeat? Robert Maguire from the Center for Responsive Politics thinks this is something to keep an eye on for the upcoming midterm election.  In regards to 501c(4) groups such as ForAmerica, Maguire offered the following:

“What’s interesting about these groups–and we’re having more and more of them.  They are running ads around the country saying this is part of their social welfare issue advocacy spending and not trying to defeat a particular candidate.  The group will say they are talking about the issues–average voters who aren’t lawyers would say this is meant to defeat a candidate running for office.

“They raised a good bit of money and claim it is all for educational purposes.  If you look at the ads they’re making, they are mentioning candidate and casting them in a very unfavorable light.”

I’ll leave it to lawyers better steeped in campaign finance reform to debate the legality of issue advocacy groups seeking to replace Republican office holders in 2014.  What I do know is that a breach of trust has occurred between grassroots activists across the country with the Republican Leadership in the House and Senate.  What was once a happy collaboration united to defeating Democrats and Obama’s agenda has turned into a nascent civil war for control of the Republican Party and the conservative movement. 

As Macguire aptly noted, “This could be the cycle pitting those who believe that winning is important coming head to head against those who believe holding firm to principle is important.”  It would be a sad day for our democracy if winning elective office and holding firm on principle weren’t one and the same. Those in the GOP leadership would be wise to bridge the gap of trust between their base before conservatives form a circular firing squad that kills their chances at victory in November.