The debt-ceiling debate that divided House Republicans this week laid bare old fault lines between the party establishment and conservatives activists, antagonisms that defined the party’s primaries last year. The re-emergence of those differences could carry significant political repercussions for the 2012 elections, for both Republicans and Democrats.
Consider how the argument between activist conservatives and establishment Republicans played out this week. The conservatives, led by pundits like Erik Erickson of RedState.com, argued Speaker of the House John Boehner’s legislation wasn’t conservative enough.
Establishment Republicans, led by more moderate business groups like the Chamber of Commerce, countered that opposing the Ohio Republican's bill was a tactical mistake and would only strengthen the Senate Democrats’ position.
If that sounds familiar, it's because the same debate split Republicans in primary election after primary election last year: Grassroots tea party members backed more “pure” conservatives over centrists that the GOP establishment endorsed because they seemed more likely to win a general election. Those differences, papered over for much of 2010 while the GOP showed a unified front against President Obama, have been exposed again under the pressure of debt-ceiling talks.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the party's standard bearer in the 2008 election, epitomized the split during a speech on the Senate floor this week, reading from a Wall Street Journal editorial that excoriated obstinate Republicans for making unrealistic demands.
"The idea seems to be that if the House GOP refuses to raise the debt ceiling, a default crisis or gradual government shutdown will ensue, and the public will turn en masse against . . . . Barack Obama," the senator said. "The Republican House that failed to raise the debt ceiling would somehow escape all blame. Then Democrats would have no choice but to pass a balanced-budget amendment and reform entitlements, and the tea-party Hobbits could return to Middle Earth having defeated Mordor."
"This is the kind of crack political thinking that turned Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell into GOP Senate nominees," McCain added, naming Republican candidates whose failure to capture seats that Republicans were supposed to win in Nevada and Delaware, respectively is often cited by mainstream Republicans to prove the futility of ideological purity.
That scolding for not falling in line with party leadership was remarkable for a political maverick who made his reputation for going his own way. It unleashed an equally remarkable torrent of criticism from conservatives against McCain, a veteran opponent of congressional pork and the man who made tea party favorite Sarah Palin a national figure when he named her as his vice presidential running mate.
"Ironically, this man campaigned for TEA Party support in his last re-election, but now throws Christine O’Donnell and I into the harbor with Sarah Palin," Angle said in a statement. "As in the fable, it is the hobbits who are the heroes and save the land. This Lord of the TARP actually ought to read to the end of the story and join forces with the TEA Party, not criticize it."
On Friday, the GOP's conservative insurgents scored a victory in the debt debate. They forced Boehner to include a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution in his debt-ceiling bill to earn passage in the House. Even then, 22 Republicans and groups such as the Heritage Action for America still opposed it.
The successful standoff helps dispel any notion that the influence of conservative groups is on the wane. And it’s a strong indication they will wield the same influence they did last year at the polling station next year. If activists can influence major legislation in Washington, is there any doubt they can shape Republican races nationwide?
"I think the trend will continue," said Chris Chocola, president of the conservative Club for Growth, which had opposed Boehner's legislation until he included the balanced budget amendment. "I think the tea party groups found their influence in 2010, and they're certainly not going to give it up in 2012."
That should give pause to several incumbents, particularly Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, two senators with moderate voting records who the Club has already targeted for defeat. It might also give pause to GOP leaders. The tea party movement gave Republican several success stories last year: Among them, Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Mike Lee, R-Utah. But it also had several high-profile failures, including O'Donnell, Angle and Alaska GOP nominee Joe Miller.
And it's the memory of those disappointments that has some Democrats licking their chops for next year. The internal dissent could leave many Republicans out in the cold, said J.J. Balaban, a Philadelphia-based Democratic consultant. He saw first-hand the potential for Republican self-destruction last year when he worked for Democratic Sen. Chris Coons, who cruised to victory in Delaware's Senate race last year after O'Donnell knocked off long-time congressman and former Gov. Mike Castle in the GOP primary.
"A monster was unleashed in the thirst to gain back control in 2010. There was a stirring up that was really remarkable, and perhaps should not be surprised that those forces rallied in 2010 are uninterested in meekly falling in line in 2011," he said. "This makes it a lot likelier Republicans are going to run into wall, because when there's a broader electorate this kind-hard right conservative approach won't work as well. Even in 2010, there were limits to where it worked."