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The Changing Face of the GOP

Thanks to the rising conservative movement fueled by tea party activists, this is not your father’s Republican Party.

Bachmann: Riding the wave.(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

photo of Reid Wilson
June 29, 2011

It’s not every day that a group of conservative activists storms an institution of the Republican establishment and demands that the national party kick out a longstanding member who has not been implicated in any sort of personal scandal. But when FreedomWorks activists on Monday jammed the Ronald Reagan Republican Center, home of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, they highlighted one of the major unanswered questions in American politics today: Who owns the GOP?

The activists were protesting NRSC support for Sen. Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican who faces a difficult reelection bid next year. Hatch’s big threat comes not from any Democrat; rather, it will come from a Republican challenger (probably Rep. Jason Chaffetz) at the state party’s convention. FreedomWorks activists want the NRSC to end its financial support for Hatch—despite the fact that the committee’s main mission is to protect Republican incumbents.

At the protest, Roll Call photographer Tom Williams captured an activist holding up a sign that read: “OUR choice, NOT yours.” The caption identifies the activist as Marla Hamby of South Carolina.


That a South Carolina activist, protesting in association with a Washington-based conservative group, would see no hypocrisy in asserting ownership of a primary in Utah is emblematic of the growing pains inside the Republican Party. This is a dramatically different GOP that presents itself to the American public today compared to the one that lost control of Congress just five years ago.

Voters who came out to cast ballots in 2010 were older and much more conservative than those who made up the party faithful in previous years. Exit polls showed that 41 percent identified themselves as conservative, a result 7 percentage points higher than in the 2008 general election pool and 6 points higher than conservative turnout in 1994, the last time Republicans won control of Congress, according to data compiled by Republican pollster Jim Hobart.

Meanwhile, a study on political typology from the Pew Research Center found that the Republican Party is much more ideologically pure than it has been in previous years. Gone are the conflicts between moderate Rockefeller Republicans in the Northeast and social conservatives in the South; the Rockefeller Republicans are all but gone.

The new makeup of the GOP is evident in the House Republican Conference. Nearly half of its members, 117 out of 240, were elected for the first time in 2006 or later. It is those newer members, many of whom claim tea party roots, who are putting pressure on the old guard. They were the ones who demanded even bigger spending cuts than party leaders proposed in January, and they are the ones now taking any hint of revenue increases off the table.

Even in states with long traditions of moderation, like Pennsylvania, moderate and liberal Republicans are being replaced by conservatives. Surveys conducted by the University of New Hampshire found the number of that state’s self-identified Republicans who call themselves conservatives have risen by 8 percentage points since 2005 to 66 percent of the GOP electorate.

The shift in New Hampshire, which holds the nation’s first presidential primary, underscores the impact this new Republican Party could have on the race for its presidential nomination. Candidates positioning themselves closer to the middle, like Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, are already signaling that they will skip Iowa, which has the largest proportion of evangelical voters outside the South; far more conservative candidates Rep. Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum have made it clear those voters are their main targets.

In both Iowa and South Carolina, Republican turnout in 2010 surged, and voters took out several GOP congressional hopefuls deemed insufficiently conservative. Palmetto State primary voters especially, demonstrated their enthusiasm; turnout increased by 42 percent over the 2004 primary, the last time the state went through a contested primary.

One thing is certain: GOP voters have no interest in returning to the status quo. The political upheaval of the last several years has been fed largely by Republicans’ disgust with their own party. In 2006, many Republicans sat out the midterm elections while independents flocked to the polls to vote for Democrats, and the party lost the House and Senate. By 2008, angry with what they saw as President George W. Bush’s departure from traditional conservatism, Republican voters took it out on Sen. John McCain, the party’s presidential nominee.

Along the way, conservative voters discovered the primary, and their ability to deny renomination to incumbents who stray from party orthodoxy. Between 1982 and 2008, just two Republican senators—Kansan Sheila Frahm and New Hampshire’s Bob Smith—lost primaries. In 2010 alone, sitting Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Bob Bennett of Utah lost their primaries; a third, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, bolted to the Democratic Party after it became clear he could no longer win the GOP nomination.

What’s more, excited conservatives turned out en masse to back the most conservative possible candidates in Florida, Kentucky, Colorado, Delaware, and Nevada. The results were decidedly mixed: The conservative candidates won in Florida and Kentucky, but they lost seats that Republicans might otherwise have won in the other three states. In Alaska, Murkowski held onto her seat by running as a third-party write-in candidate.

Even so, nothing has diminished the energy and excitement of the Republican base. But that base is changing, and those who purport to lead the GOP are racing to get ahead of a crowd that’s already marching in a new direction.

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