NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Think the Republican establishment is alone in obsessing about candidate recruitment and the quality of GOP nominees? Think again.
The Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday held a panel discussion to examine disagreements between grass-roots activists and the party establishment over candidate viability that cost the GOP enough Senate races in 2010 and 2012 to constitute a majority. What was clear from the panelists and the activists that participated in the question-and-answer session was that conservatives are just as concerned as the establishment with the failure of Republican nominees to win general elections.
Charlie Gerow, a Pennsylvanian who serves on the board of the American Conservative Union, which sponsors CPAC, suggested that conservatives are frustrated with the GOP’s failure in the 1990s and 2000s to deliver on the promises Republicans ran on to cut spending and to rein in government. Gerow indicated that the grass roots have run out of patience, leading many in recent years to ignore candidate viability and competence and to reflexively oppose those backed by the establishment.
However, Gerow argued that recruiting conservatives to run for office who are also capable politicians should be a top priority of grass-roots activists who are interested in seeing a Washington, D.C., that reflects their values.
“There clearly are some folks who are frustrated by the direction of the party over the course of the past 15-20 years, and they want to do something about it. How they work that out sometimes leaves a little to be desired,” said Gerow, who as an early backer of Ronald Reagan and who said he remembers what it’s like to have the GOP establishment view you suspiciously. “Ultimately, you have to have the talent, you have to have the ability, you have to have the credentials to govern in order to get elected.”
Implicit in Gerow’s remarks: Not every anti-establishment candidate has the political chops and broad appeal of a Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and conservatives need to be able to tell the difference. Rubio, who spoke to CPAC on Thursday, appealed to attendees to focus on using conservatism to help the middle class. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul also said that the GOP needs to broaden its base.
Gerow moderated the CPAC panel on candidate recruitment, which included two journalists, former California Republican Party Chairman Ron Nehring and Steven Law, who runs American Crossroads, a GOP super PAC that has clashed with conservative activist groups in Republican Senate primaries.
The panel was officially billed as a discussion on the “Buckley rule,” named for legendary National Review editor William F. Buckley, who developed the litmus test that, in GOP primaries, conservatives should support the electable, or viable, conservative in the field, not simply the most conservative, period.
Grass-roots suspicion of groups such as American Crossroads was evident when one activist told Law that he might approve of the super PAC’s work if it wasn’t intent on opposing conservative candidates. When Law told him that Crossroads would prefer to back candidates that were both conservative and viable, the activist’s tone softened. However, tea party activists remain at odds with the group and have urged Crossroads donors to discontinue their support.
Nehring, who described himself as a movement conservative first and a GOP leader second, echoed Gerow in asserting the importance of recruiting viable candidates.
“Politics is 75 percent relationships — I say this as a movement conservative. It’s 25 percent everything else,” Nehring said. “One trait I think is the most important in a candidate is humility, because without that you cannot learn.”