Who Can Bridge the Republican Party Divide?

Most of the GOP’s top presidential contenders are too tainted from the party’s fratricidal battles.

Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) (R) listens to Senator John Hoeven (R-ND) (L) as they arrive at the Senate Republican weekly policy luncheon November 19, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
National Journal
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Michael Hirsh
Feb. 12, 2014, 7:42 a.m.

This should have been Chris Christie’s mo­ment.

With the GOP lead­er­ship in Wash­ing­ton en­gaged in open war­fare with its con­ser­vat­ive base, the New Jer­sey gov­ernor was seen as one of the few emer­ging na­tion­al can­did­ates with enough cros­sov­er ap­peal to play the peace­maker in the party. And in fact, be­fore “Bridgeg­ate,” Christie had been primed to launch his 2016 cam­paign in the open­ing months of 2014. Now he’s polit­ic­ally dam­aged, per­haps fatally, and many oth­er lead­ing con­tenders may be too com­prom­ised by their stands on the party lead­er­ship’s sur­render over the shut­down and debt-ceil­ing is­sues.

Re­pub­lic­an Party strategists say it’s an open ques­tion wheth­er any­one else will emerge with the na­tion­al stature and ap­peal to make the peace in an out­right civil war that is likely to play out through the rest of the year — and very prob­ably in­to the 2016 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign. Even Rep. Paul Ry­an, the 2012 vice pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee and erstwhile con­ser­vat­ive darling who was one of the 199 GOP House votes against the debt-ceil­ing in­crease Tues­day (stand­ing against Speak­er John Boehner and his House lead­er­ship), re­mains some­what tain­ted by his sweet­heart deal with Demo­crat­ic Sen. Patty Mur­ray end­ing the gov­ern­ment shut­down late last year. “I think it’s go­ing to be open war­fare through 2016,” says Mat­thew Latimer, a former speech­writer for Pres­id­ent George W. Bush and seni­or staffer for Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­an Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell.

Scot­tie Nell Hughes, news dir­ect­or for the Tea Party News Net­work in Nashville, Tenn., says the GOP may be fated for a re­play of 2012 — where can­did­ates vy­ing for con­ser­vat­ive sup­port tear each oth­er down in the pres­id­en­tial primar­ies and the party is left with a tep­idly mod­er­ate nom­in­ee — “un­til we see some lead­er­ship step up and say, this is how we need to act.” Hughes says the party es­tab­lish­ment re­cently fol­lowed a pre­dict­able pat­tern by float­ing Jeb Bush’s name for 2016 with­in days of Christie’s near-down­fall, as the lat­ter was wal­loped by a scan­dal over wheth­er his ad­min­is­tra­tion en­gaged in polit­ic­al re­tri­bu­tion by de­lib­er­ately caus­ing traffic prob­lems on the George Wash­ing­ton Bridge. But Hughes be­lieves there are still con­ser­vat­ive sa­viors out there, among them Sen. Marco Ru­bio of Flor­ida, an­oth­er former con­ser­vat­ive fa­vor­ite who ap­peared to fall from grace last year be­cause of his will­ing­ness to com­prom­ise on im­mig­ra­tion.

Still, Hughes notes that even she is “get­ting beaten up” by her tea-party col­leagues for dar­ing to say so.

Some strategists who are more aligned with the es­tab­lish­ment wing of the party, like former GOP con­gress­man Vin Weber, say the best hope for a na­tion­al uni­fi­er may well lie with pop­u­lar Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernors such as Mike Pence of In­di­ana, Scott Walk­er of Wis­con­sin, and John Kasich of Ohio who have stayed largely out of the in­tra-party battle in Wash­ing­ton. The lat­ter two, however, still have to win reelec­tion at home this year. “You can’t be the peace­maker, if you will, and have been totally on one side of the fight,” Weber says. “There’s no per­fect per­son. Al­most by defin­i­tion, he or she is go­ing to have scars. I think there’s a need for us to be able to talk to each oth­er.”

Most Re­pub­lic­an ana­lysts say the party has a bounty of tal­ent, and some of those with an eye on 2016, like Sen. Rand Paul of Ken­tucky, may still find a way to ap­peal to the con­ser­vat­ive base while woo­ing the GOP cen­ter.

Right now, however, there’s no truce in sight. Weber main­tains that the party is in bet­ter shape than in the last elec­tion cycles be­cause “the num­ber of really de­struct­ive primar­ies around the county is smal­ler.” But neither he nor oth­er lead­ing GOP strategists be­lieve the tea-party/con­ser­vat­ive in­sur­gency is any­where close to pe­ter­ing out. In­deed, in some primary races like Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham’s reelec­tion bid in South Car­o­lina, no few­er than four tea-party-aligned can­did­ates are try­ing un­seat him.

Des­pite the on­go­ing in­vest­ig­a­tions in­to his ad­min­is­tra­tion, Christie can’t be coun­ted out. Yet even Christie in the best case faced an up­hill struggle to win over con­ser­vat­ives sus­pi­cious of his stand on fisc­al and so­cial is­sues. With al­most two years still to go be­fore the next pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, it is im­possible to say what new con­ser­vat­ive lead­ers with na­tion­al po­ten­tial will emerge — for ex­ample, Gov. Susana Mar­tinez of New Mex­ico, who by be­ing both a Lat­ina and a wo­man could neut­ral­ize a lot of Hil­lary Clin­ton’s ap­peal. But many GOP strategists agree that such a na­tion­al uni­fy­ing fig­ure is sadly lack­ing today. Rick Tyler, a former aide to Newt Gin­grich, says there hasn’t been any­one of that stature since Gin­grich him­self be­came House speak­er in 1994. “What’s needed is someone who can fig­ure out how to put the co­ali­tion to­geth­er, how to get evan­gel­ic­al con­ser­vat­ives and the pro-growth con­ser­vat­ives to­geth­er, how to at­tract Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans and Lati­nos.”

Tyler, however, la­ments that the Demo­crats “have the po­ten­tial to pull to­geth­er a power­ful co­ali­tion too.” And oth­er GOP strategists say it’s very pos­sible, and prob­ably likely, that the Re­pub­lic­an civil war will still be ra­ging in 2016, with no Ap­po­mat­tox on the ho­ri­zon.

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