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Republican Insiders Starting to Fret About 2014 Primary Battles

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Capito announced her Senate bid last week, news that has already met resistance from some conservative groups.

Not again.

Those two words encompass the panic in GOP establishment circles following the criticism conservative activist groups leveled at Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito after she announced her plans to challenge Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia in 2014.

Negative reactions to Capito’s candidacy by the Club for Growth and Senate Conservatives Fund, founded by Sen. Jim DeMint, created anxiety that consumed GOP insiders all last week. Moore Capito is viewed inside and outside West Virginia as the Republican best positioned to oust Rockefeller, or to win an open seat if he retires. But the party establishment is still smarting from blowing easy races in 2010 and 2012, and many worry that the same could happen two years from now.

“We’ve been down this road,” a Republican K Street source said. “Republicans have lost several Senate seats that we should have won because of inferior candidates.”

The response to Capito’s candidacy has dredged up this internecine conflict less than a month after the elections. Some GOP operatives were still digesting the 2012 results — including losing Senate races in Indiana and Missouri with weak or flawed general election nominees.

Many Washington-based Republican insiders say the hands-off 2012 primary strategy of National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn of Texas was an over-correction from 2010, when the committee tried unsuccessfully to pick candidates, and they say the party must get back into the business of exerting its influence.

But when pressed on just how the NRSC and GOP Senate leaders should go about this, few specific recommendations were offered.

“The onus is first on the candidate, not the party,” one Washington-based Republican strategist said about GOP primaries, adding that the days of the national party “controlling the levers are over.”

Conservative activist groups counter that had they not challenged the establishment, rising national stars such as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Sen.-elect Ted Cruz of Texas would never have emerged. Cruz has been tapped as NRSC vice chairman for grass-roots outreach alongside incoming Chairman Jerry Moran of Kansas. The Texan is expected to help the NRSC identify prospective candidates and work with state and local GOP leaders to determine whom they might prefer.

Barney Keller, a spokesman for the Club for Growth, said the point of his group’s criticism of Capito was to discourage the party from nominating “liberal Republicans” such as Rep. Denny Rehberg and former Rep. Heather A. Wilson, who lost Senate races in Montana and New Mexico respectively, in November.

Election Day also was a bad day for moderate and establishment-backed Republican Senate candidates, not just those favored by the tea party.

“Clearly, that model doesn’t work,” Keller said. “We don’t really factor in whining from the same big-government Republican crowd that wanted Charlie Crist over Marco Rubio [in Florida] and Arlen Specter over Pat Toomey [in Pennsylvania].”

But after the performances of Missouri Rep. Todd Akin and Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock this fall, many in the establishment have lost patience with conservative activists who are intent on monopolizing the process.

Privately, many Republicans have expressed emotions ranging from annoyance to hopelessness to unmitigated rage at the tea party groups. Much is at stake for them in the new cycle. In CQ Roll Call’s initial Senate race ratings, six races were deemed Tossups, and all are seats currently held by Democrats. Republicans need to net a pickup of six seats in 2014 to capture the majority.

Julie Conway, executive director of VIEW PAC, voiced what many would not say on the record. VIEW PAC is a group that seeks to elect female Republicans to office and has long been supportive of Capito.

“It has been said that these organizations prefer to fight than to win, and it seems this bizarre phenomenon is not only continuing, but becoming even more brazen,” Conway wrote in an opinion piece that she circulated to the press last week. She went on to describe the opposition to Capito as “a disgrace.”

But not all Republicans are worried — at least not in West Virginia. Capito’s father, Arch Moore, is a former three-term governor, and the congresswoman has money, organization and a brand.

“The panic is unfounded,” one GOP operative familiar with the Mountain State’s politics said. “Sure you’d prefer not to have the right wing try and do this, but I think West Virginia is pretty immune to all the tea party stuff.”

He pointed out that the fiscal conservatism of these outside groups does not play well in the poor state with a heavily elderly population reliant on Social Security and Medicare. The primary reason he is not worried was that there is little tea party organization in the state and no obvious candidate. But he fears that Capito might have to fight through a tough primary, only to emerge weaker and with less money at the beginning of the general election campaign.

Capito’s fellow Republican in the delegation, Rep. David B. McKinley, has not ruled out a run. But the more likely threat is wealthy GOP businessman John Raese. He has run statewide multiple times and lost, but he can self-finance another bid.

“If Raese wants to run, no one will be able to talk him out of it,” the GOP operative said.

An earlier version of this article did not clearly reflect the relationship of Sen. Jim DeMint with the Senate Conservatives Fund. He founded the super PAC but does not have a role with it currently.

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