Scenes from the GOP Civil War

Republicans are supporting Democratic colleagues’ Senate candidacies, while others are embracing subsidies for clean energy—all small steps across old battle lines.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty

The U.S. Senate is a clubby place, so it shouldn’t be all that surprising when some members break ranks to support the other side based on personal relationships they’ve forged over the years. Republicans John Warner and Richard Lugar, two of the senate’s most admired alums, back the candidacy of Michelle Nunn, the daughter of Sam Nunn, a Democratic former colleague with whom they worked closely. She’s running for her father’s old seat in Georgia, where an upset victory in a red state could salvage the Democrats’ majority in a tough year.

A colleague’s daughter is one thing, but Warner announced last week that he is backing his fellow Virginian and former colleague, Democrat Mark Warner (no blood relationship) in his race against former Republican Party Chairman Ed Gillespie. “There are times you must, I think, recognize that certain individuals are superior in their talents and in what they have done and can potentially do for your state,” Warner told the Associated Press. It wasn’t the first time Warner crossed the aisle to buck his party. As a proud member of what he calls “the old school,” there was a time and place for such displays of independence. They made the difference between politicians and statesmen.

A third senior Republican figure and storied name caught my attention: Barry Goldwater, Jr., a former member of Congress from California, now living in Arizona, son of Barry Goldwater, presidential candidate in 1964 and the father of modern conservatism. Goldwater co-chairs a campaign to “stand up to utility monopolies to ensure solar energy remains strong in America.” The group’s web site features an elephant TUSK, acronym for “Tell Utilities Solar Won’t Be Killed.” In Washington, where Republicans mock solar energy as a liberal fantasy, I was intrigued by Goldwater’s advocacy, and what it means when the son of such a legendary figure in American conservatism picks up the banner for a cause generally championed by his political opposites.

I reached Goldwater by phone in Hawaii where he is lecturing at the university to ask him about his apparent apostasy. He made it clear in the first few minutes of our conversation that he is very much his father’s son, an outspoken conservative at home with the slings and arrows of politics. He publicly battled Arizona’s largest utility last fall when it threatened to impose a hefty surcharge on people who installed solar panels on their roofs. Conservative business interests rallied behind the utility, supporting the surcharge as a way to offset the rebate, or subsidy, that solar-energy users get when they generate excess energy that returns to the grid.

The rebate and the “solar tax” became the centerpiece of a heated campaign with Goldwater in the forefront defending the subsidy. After first explaining that Republicans tend to oppose any government support or subsidies used for “social engineering,” calling it “the federal government’s devious way of manipulating the economy,” Goldwater said what conservative Republicans are not supposed to say, “I happen to think that subsidies used judiciously and intelligently can be used to better mankind. Renewable energy at some time has got to stand on its own—and oil and gas shouldn’t continue to feed at this trough. It’s ridiculous, and it should be stopped.”

Goldwater’s intervention blunted the push by the utility, and a modest fee of about $5 was added to the electric bill of solar customers. Asked about the role he played, and the impact of his famous name, Goldwater bristled a bit. “I use it, but I don’t abuse it,” he said, adding, “It’s my name too.” Recalling his father’s views, he said they were firmly cemented in freedom. “He’s a libertarian—government has no business being in our lives. If you want to smoke pot, go ahead. If you want an abortion, that’s your choice. He was way ahead of his time on those issues.”

Asked if he, the son, is ahead of his time on solar energy, Goldwater replied, “That makes for an interesting story.” But it’s not true, he says, citing polls taken during last fall’s campaign that found 75 percent of Republicans support solar energy. “It’s a misnomer that they don’t,” he says. Still, the Goldwater Institute, a non-profit organization founded in his father’s name, did not join the fight to preserve the subsidies though they are behind breaking up utility company monopolies. “We try to maintain the purity that Barry Goldwater’s name stands for,” says Nick Dranias, Constitutional Policy Director.

The energy industry is where cell phones and fiber optic cables were in 1989, Dranias says, likening its potential to the explosive growth we’ve seen since then in technology. “Five years ago, I would have been railing against solar because it looked completely propped up and unfeasible, but in two to three years, it could actually be competitive cost-wise with coal,” he says.

The co-chair of TUSK is Tom Morrissey, former Arizona Republican state party chairman, who resigned under pressure in 2012 after questioning the authenticity of President Obama’s birth certificate released by the White House. There’s nothing left-leaning about him. These alliances that may seem odd today reflect the growing divide within the Republican Party between its ascendant libertarian wing and business interests that find themselves newly challenged. What’s happening in Arizona with the fight between old and new energy sources adds another layer of complexity to the civil war within the GOP as some of its biggest names try to divine the future.