It took a tea-party insurrection that disabled the federal government and wrecked the Republican brand, but after months of handwringing, establishment Republicans are preparing to attack ultraconservative ideologues across red America.
From Alabama to Alaska, the center-right, business-oriented wing of the Republican Party is gearing up for a series of skirmishes that it hopes can prevent the 2014 midterm election from turning into another missed opportunity. This will not be a coordinated operation. It will be messy, ugly, and prone to backfiring. And if the comeback succeeds, it will be in fits and starts, most likely culminating in the selection of a presidential nominee in 2016.
"Hopefully we'll go into eight to 10 races and beat the snot out of them," said former Rep. Steve LaTourette of Ohio, whose new political group, Defending Main Street, aims to raise $8 million to fend off tea-party challenges against more mainstream Republican incumbents. "We're going to be very aggressive and we're going to get in their faces."
The caterwauling over the GOP brand ramped up after President Obama's reelection and a handful of setbacks in the Senate before hitting full screech as the country hurtled toward default. For some Republicans, the time for soul-searching is over. "This is a battle we have to fight," said GOP consultant John Feehery, who has advised top Republican leaders on Capitol Hill. "We can't just lie down and let this happen."
Tactics being discussed among Republican strategists, donors, and party leaders include running attack ads against tea-party candidates for Congress; overthrowing Ron Paul's libertarian acolytes dominating the Iowa and Minnesota state parties; promoting open primaries over nominating conventions, which can produce Republican hard-liners such as Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli and shutdown-instigator Mike Lee of Utah; and countering political juggernauts Heritage Action, the Club for Growth, and FreedomWorks that target Republican incumbents who have consorted with Democrats.
LaTourette's Defending Main Street group has identified its first project: defending Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho. The Club for Growth threw its support to a tea-party challenger, Bryan Smith, because Simpson backed the $700 million Wall Street bailout, raising the debt ceiling, and a budget deal that staved off the fiscal cliff.
Defending Main Street also is keeping an eye on other House Republicans who have drawn the wrath of the Club for Growth, including Aaron Schock and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, who is running for the Senate.
But there are many more races drawing the attention of Republican insiders who fear the tea party—and the public's growing distaste for the movement—is jeopardizing GOP control of the House and a potential Senate takeover. Consider:
- A Nov. 5 special congressional election in Alabama, where former state Sen. Bradley Byrne is competing in the Republican runoff primary against Dean Young, a tea-party candidate who declared at a candidate forum, "We are witnessing the end of a Western Christian empire."
- A crowded Republican primary field facing a top Democratic recruit, Michelle Nunn, for an open Senate seat in Georgia. One GOP operative described two of the candidates, Reps. Paul Broun and Phil Gingrey, as "ticking time bombs." Broun has condemned the theory of evolution, questioned President Obama's citizenship and religion, and advocated abolishing the Federal Reserve and returning to the gold standard. Gingrey defended former Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin, who said victims of "legitimate rape" could avoid pregnancy.
- A Republican primary in the open Senate race in South Dakota pitting challengers from the right against former Gov. Mike Rounds. The front-running candidate has piqued conservatives by refusing to sign a no-new-taxes pledge.
- A Republican Senate primary in Alaska that features two establishment figures, Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and former Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan, against Joe Miller, a tea-party firebrand with high unfavorable ratings after a 2010 defeat.
Along with LaTourette's group, another player in the battle for control of the Republican Party will be the Conservative Victory Project, an arm of the Crossroads super PAC founded by Republican strategist Karl Rove. The group plans to vet GOP primary candidates with the goal of sending the most viable conservative to the general election.
"We want to avoid situations like 2010 with (Delaware Republican nominee) Christine O'Donnell, where a candidate gains momentum and the skeletons come out after the primary," said Crossroads spokesman Jonathan Collegio. "If skeletons exist, we'll make every effort to make sure they're known to every group that spends money long before the primary."
The business community is potentially a major ally in the Republican establishment's comeback plan. After long fueling Republican campaigns, corporate leaders were stunned that a wing of the party would refuse to fund the government and again risk national default in the hope of moving an immovable object, namely Obama's health care law.
"We expect politicians to conduct themselves in such a way that respects the rule of law and the process by which our forefathers constructed this republic," said Greg Casey, president of a nationwide coalition of business groups called BIPAC. Like other business leaders and prominent Republicans, Casey was reluctant to identify specific targets for fear of antagonizing the conservative grassroots.
"They are going to see a business community interested in results and policy, and they have to decide whether that's to be feared or embraced," he said.
Because efforts to roll the tea party typically provoke activists to roar back stronger than ever, the old guard is stumped in some instances. Ideally, the establishment would figure out a way to channel the movement's passion into electoral victories in 2014 and 2016. But how do you control Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the Republican ringleader of the shutdown, who may not count enough friends on Capitol Hill to rename a post office but whose real power comes from outside Washington? How do you influence House Republicans when gerrymandering leaves them with little to fear?
"This conflict could be the new normal," warned Rob Jesmer, former executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "Until we have a nominee people can rally around in 2016, I think we're going to be the wilderness for a while."
The latest round of polling offered evidence of this exile: 64 percent of Americans had an unfavorable view of the Republican Party in a new CNN/ORC International poll. The party's image also sunk to an all-time low in the latest Washington Post/ABC News survey.
The damage to the party is obvious in the Virginia governor's race, where two weeks before the election, Republicans are already writing off Cuccinelli, their tea-party-backed nominee. As he lags behind Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the polls, Republicans are condemning the state party for choosing its nominee at a convention dominated by conservative activists instead of in a regular primary. The decision prompted Lt Gov. Bill Bolling, who has strong ties to the business community, to drop out of the race.
The second-guessing over the convention and the party's agenda is expected to dominate a traditional gathering of Republican elected officials in December and the elections for local party chairs in the spring.
"The convention left a bad taste in a lot of people's mouths and we're not going to see that again," predicted Shaun Kenney, a former spokesman for the Virginia GOP who runs a conservative web site. "It's going to be like divorce court."
This article appears in the October 26, 2013 edition of National Journal Magazine as The Empire Strikes Back.