If you’re going to declare war on the tea party, The New York Times is a good place to start.
By laying out plans to protect Senate Republicans and other seasoned candidates from tea-party insurgents on the front page of the Sunday paper, the American Crossroads super PAC effectively alerted the donor class to its new venture, called the Conservative Victory Project.
But by picking a fight so publicly in what former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin famously decried as the “lame-stream media,” the super PAC has royally antagonized the very conservative grassroots it is hoping to tame.
The backlash on Monday was swift. Freedom Works President Matt Kibbe called the super PAC’s plans “Orwellian.” ForAmerica Chairman L. Brent Bozell III declared, “The days of conservatives listening to the moderate GOP establishment are over.” The Tea Party Express called the Conservative Victory Project “a big mistake that will lead to neither conservatives, nor victories.”
The tension between these conservative groups, which prize ideology over electability, and the major Republican donors, who like to bet on winners, is one of the biggest challenges facing the Republican Party as it seeks to take back the Senate in 2014 and win the White House in 2016. It’s also unclear how much success Crossroads will have in raising money in the next election cycle after such a bad run in 2012.
The political landscape is complicated and doesn’t lend itself to easy answers. The Republican Party lost two Senate seats within its reach in 2012 because of offensive remarks about rape and abortion made by conservatives Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana. In 2010, tea party-backed candidate Christine O’Donnell upset Republiclan Sen. Michael Castle in Delaware, only to lose to Democrat Chris Coons in the general election after a series of embarrassing revelations.
Not only did Akin and Mourdock lose their races, Democrats exploited their comments in attacks that portrayed the GOP as out of touch and anti-woman.
But for every O’Donnell and Akin, there are examples of seasoned, establishment-backed Republicans who fell short in 2012: Heather Wilson in New Mexico, Rick Berg in North Dakota, and Denny Rehberg in Montana. Many of the rising stars of the Republican Party -- Sens. Marco Rubio in Florida, Ted Cruz in Texas, Rand Paul in Kentucky, and Tim Scott in South Carolina -- were backed by the Club for Growth, which prides itself on taking out Republican primary candidates whom it believes betrayed fiscal conservative principles. “Too often for the Republican establishment, electability means moderate,” said Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller.
The Conservative Victory Project is among a number of new Republican groups trying to broaden the party’s appeal beyond its right-wing base in the wake of GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s drubbing in the November election. On Wednesday, the Republican State Leadership Committee will unveil its “newest phase” to support female and minority candidates running for state office. A former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, Fergus Cullen, and a former U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Carlos Gutierrez, have both announced separate plans to raise money for Republican candidates who back immigration reform. The Republican Main Street Partnership decided last month to remove the word “Republican” from its title to reflect its goal to build a broader political coalition.
“I think it's worthwhile for the public at large to know that there is a movement within the Republican Party to bring this thing back to center-right,” said the group's new president, former Rep. Steve LaTourette of Ohio, who left Congress complaining about partisan gridlock. “The hornets' nest needed to be stuck with a stick because it’s led us in a bad direction. We might have a majority in the U.S. Senate if not for these conservative groups that have these litmus tests for membership.”
In some respects the new group seeks to do the dirty work of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the arm of the national party overseeing Senate recruitment and fundraising. The NRSC ideally works behind the scenes to vet candidates and help the strongest ones raise money and hire professional staff, and it has faced criticism for more heavy-handed involvement in primaries. Its endorsement of the politically squishy governor of Florida, Charlie Crist, over the more conservative Marco Rubio in 2010 fueled grassroots suspicion toward endorsements from Washington. That same year, tea-party-backed Republican Ron Johnson in Wisconsin waved off offers of help from the national party because he feared it would enrage conservative activists.
The party's interests in clearing the field for strong candidates without insulting voters who think they know best leaves national GOP leaders hamstrung.
“We think there is a necessity in having a group out there that can educate people about weaker candidates’ records,” said one national party official.
One 2012 race that offers the Conservative Victory Fund some encouragement was Richard Hudson’s win in a North Carolina congressional district. The Club for Growth backed one of his rivals, upstart candidate Scott Keadle, but the more moderate American Action Network leveled the playing field by backing Hudson.
“It’s a very positive development that another significant group with significant resources is joining this effort to support the most electable conservatives,” said Dan Conston, a spokesman for the American Action Network.
Looking to 2014, establishment Republicans are already worried about the Club for Growth’s threat to oppose a Senate bid by a popular House member from West Virginia, Shelley Moore Capito. Another state that could see intra-GOP warfare is Iowa, where Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin is retiring. Rep. Steve King, a hard-liner on illegal immigration at a time when the GOP is trying to boost its appeal among Hispanics, is considering a Senate bid.
The new group’s potential interference in Iowa could pave the way for a more moderate Republican. Or it could backfire by raising the ire of King and his anti-establishment supporters.
“I think that any time the message to conservatives is that the smart guys in Washington are going to be picking candidates, it’s very dangerous,” said Republican consultant Curt Anderson. “A lot of the smart guys turn out to be not very smart. It’s playing with fire.”