The internal battle for the direction of the Republican Party has enveloped Washington’s GOP consultant class, as pragmatic party strategists hired to win campaigns ponder how to reclaim control of the primary process from powerful conservative activist groups.
This developing conflict comes in the aftermath of consecutive election cycles that saw Republicans blow as many as five Senate races because the party nominated flawed candidates over those who were better suited to compete in the general election.
Some of these losing 2010 and 2012 nominees received crucial support from Washington-based tea party groups that made their primary campaigns viable. GOP consultants who found themselves on the losing end are considering the formation of outside groups of their own to counter these organizations and boost their favored candidates in the 2014 primaries.
“The bigger the office, the brighter the spotlight, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to elect a lousy candidate over a good candidate in any [general election] Senate race, regardless of ideology,” said a Republican strategist who is frustrated with the hold that conservative groups like the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and the Senate Conservatives Fund have had on the GOP primary process in recent elections.
Unlike these tea-party-affiliated groups, this Republican strategist and others who think similarly (prioritizing winning over ideological purity) argue that a Republican will always be more conservative than a Democrat and the party’s objective should be to control the White House and Congress so it can set the governing agenda and prevent Democrats from enacting laws like the Affordable Care Act.
In quiet postmortem sessions, these strategists are exploring ways to influence primaries and curb the power of the tea party groups. The GOP needs to flip six seats, net, to win control of the Senate in 2014, and many Republicans say the party would at least be at parity in the chamber if “unelectable” candidates had not lost races in Colorado, Delaware and Nevada in 2010 and Indiana and Missouri in 2012.
The activist groups counter that plenty of Republican establishment candidates have also lost recent Senate elections, including, in 2012: Reps. Rick Berg in North Dakota and Denny Rehberg in Montana, as well as moderates Linda McMahon in Connecticut and former Rep. Heather A. Wilson in New Mexico. They point in particular to 2010, when the GOP establishment declined to support now-Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania at the outset of their respective primaries against candidates it deemed more electable.
The tea party organizations also take issue with the notion that electing a Republican will always produce better legislative results than a Democrat.
“Clearly, that model doesn’t work,” Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller said. “We don’t really factor in whining from the same big–government Republican crowd that wanted Charlie Crist over Marco Rubio and Arlen Specter over Pat Toomey.”
Whether they are pragmatic conservatives or passionate Republican moderates, GOP strategists smarting over the tea party’s control of the primary process say their overriding goal is to win elections and, in doing so, further conservative governance.
To equalize the playing field in the 2014 primaries, they plan to form or beef up their own outside groups to offer television advertising, direct mail, digital targeting and voter turnout support for the candidates they back.
This used to be the purview of the Republican congressional campaign committees. But they rarely take overt action in primaries, believing that doing so would upset conservative activists and be counterproductive to the candidates they hope will emerge from the primaries. Since 2008, the national party seal of approval has served only to taint candidates as Washington insiders.
The moderate Republican Main Street Partnership is the most outspoken group in this cause.
Former Rep. Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia, who served as National Republican Congressional Committee chairman for two of his terms in Congress, currently runs the group, but outgoing Rep. Steven C. LaTourette of Ohio will take over in January. They have created a super PAC and expect to have a much larger presence this coming cycle.
Sarah Chamberlain, chief financial officer of Republican Main Street Partnership, stressed that the group’s super PAC would be used only to defend endorsed candidates from attacks and would not be employed to attack other Republicans.
“We cannot allow this to happen,” Chamberlain said. “Centrist wealthy individuals are ready to write checks.”
Another wealthy individual who might get involved is New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent. His spokesman declined to comment on future plans for the mayor’s super PAC, Independence USA.
But the mayor invested millions in the final weeks of the 2012 campaign to support moderate candidates on both sides of the aisle, and Bloomberg aides made clear to The New York Times in October that more activity is likely in the future.
American Action Network is a center-right group also positioned to exert influence.
The group, founded by former Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., actually did play in two 2012 Senate primaries, with mixed results. It successfully helped Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, fight off a primary challenge from the right, but it failed in its attempt to save Sen. Richard G. Lugar, R-Ind. He lost his primary to state Treasurer Richard E. Mourdock, who proceeded to lose his Senate race to Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly.
And when the Club for Growth and Senate Conservatives Fund were quick to criticize Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., in November, after she announced her 2014 Senate candidacy, it was Karl Rove’s super PAC, American Crossroads, that issued a news release defending her.
The Capito criticism jump-started much of the discussion among GOP pragmatists over how to aid favored primary candidates in the next election. Establishment Republicans were shocked by how quickly the club and the Senate Conservatives Fund attacked Capito.
A Republican strategist in Washington noted that the two groups were faster to criticize Capito’s candidacy than the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which has yet to weigh in.
“They’re not trying to learn any lessons,” the strategist said of the conservative activist groups. “They’re not trying to see what they can do better.”
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.