Will GOP Divisions Undo Party’s Success Over the Long Term?

Posted June 11, 2004 at 12:45pm

While core Republican voters seem likely to line up loyally behind the re-election bid of President Bush, around the country there are troubling signs of division within GOP ranks.

Those divisions not only threaten Republican election prospects in 2004, but also raise questions about the party’s health as they look ahead to upcoming election cycles. [IMGCAP(1)]

In at least a handful of states this year, Republican Senate primaries pit establishment-backed candidates against “outsider” insurgents, and those fights could give Democratic nominees just the opening they need to steal what would normally be reliably Republican seats.

The question that should worry Republican strategists is whether they are witnessing the beginning of another round of GOP intraparty fighting that will carry over to 2006 and 2008.

Too many journalists portray this division as purely ideological. While some of the contests have a strong ideological component –—the Sen. Arlen Specter versus Rep. Pat Toomey GOP Senate primary in Pennsylvania this year is a good example — many of the internal battles are fights between insiders and outsiders.

The division, which is more style than substance, is particularly evident this year in the Colorado and Oklahoma Senate races.

In Colorado, much of the party establishment (both in the state and in the nation’s capital) has lined up behind businessman Pete Coors. Party insurgents prefer former Rep. Bob Schaffer, who left Congress to honor his pledge to limit himself to three terms in the House.

There appears to be little separating the two conservatives ideologically, but party insurgents clearly don’t like the idea of retiring Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Gov. Bill Owens, former state party Chairman Bruce Benson and the National Republican Senatorial Committee trying to force Coors, a wealthy political neophyte, down their throats. (Yes, I know, the NRSC is officially neutral in that race.)

The situation is similar in Oklahoma, where party insiders have lined up behind former Oklahoma City Mayor Kirk Humphreys. True outsiders seem to prefer former Congressman Tom Coburn, who is running as someone who will shake up Washington.

Some Sooner State conservatives portray Humphreys as a squishy moderate, but that’s baloney. Other than on trade (Coburn is more of a populist when it comes to both style and trade issues), it’s hard to see much of a difference between the two anti-abortion rights, pro-gun Republicans.

But Coburn backers relish the idea of taking on a guy who has the backing of Rep. Tom Cole, former Rep. J.C. Watts and even Sen. James Inhofe — in other words, the status quo.

In Florida, establishment-backed former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Mel Martinez faces former Rep. Bill McCollum. And in Alaska, appointed Sen. Lisa Murkowski faces a challenge from insurgent-backed former state Sen. Mike Miller and former U.S. Attorney Wev Shea.

Murkowski’s supporters include the NRSC and Alaska’s senior Senator, Ted Stevens. NRSC Chairman George Allen (Va.) took the unusual step of endorsing Martinez “personally” even though his committee remains officially neutral.

McCollum, like Coburn, is happy to run against Washington’s attempt to pick the state’s nominee.

Critics of the insider-backed hopefuls complain that Martinez, a one-time leader of the state trial lawyers, and Murkowski, whose record on social issues and even taxes is less conservative than they would like, are more liberal than their primary opponents, and that assertion is not without merit.

But neither of these contests features an ideological chasm as wide as the one in the Specter-Toomey race, and the insider versus outsider nature of the two primaries seems to overshadow the ideological contrasts in the two primaries.

GOP insiders have been relatively heavy-handed this cycle in trying to nominate their preferred candidates, and insurgents, often backed by the Club for Growth, which frequently seems to behave like a rebellious teenager intent on causing trouble for the sheer joy of it, have been equally confrontational.

The problem for Republicans is that these divisions are likely to grow regardless of whether Bush is re-elected in November.

If Bush wins, insiders and outsiders are likely to battle for control of a party led by a lame duck. In some places, the fight will have an ideological tone. But in other places it will be more about style and power, as both elements seek to position themselves to be in a dominant position for the 2008 presidential nominating contest.

If, on the other hand, Democratic Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) wins the White House in the fall, the GOP will be without even a de facto party leader. Insiders and outsiders will engage in at least a brief period of finger-pointing and blame. In this case, however, the two wings are likely to patch up their differences more quickly, especially if Kerry governs from the left.

Parties go through these phases from time to time, and it’s dangerous to read too much into the divisions. But state and national Democrats appear to be much more unified now, and that is an asset that should not be ignored by anyone monitoring the party’s efforts to win the White House, take over Congress and set the nation’s policy agenda.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.