Inside the Messy but Moneyed Republican Plan to Neutralize the Tea Party

The business-friendly GOP establishment is putting its cash to work in skirmishes across the country that might reshape the 2014 elections.

Some fans dressed in Star Wars costumes gather in a market in Santiago de Compostela, northwestern Spain, on May 21, 2010, to conmemorate the 30th anniversary of 'The Empire Strikes Back' film. 
National Journal
Beth Reinhard
Oct. 24, 2013, 1 a.m.

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.”