A Republican Divide in Sharp Relief

Reid Wilson

Watching the Republican Party debate its own reinvention in the wake of a major electoral defeat brings to mind the old phrase: With friends like these, who needs enemies?

There is little debate that the current coalition making up the modern Republican Party is too small to win a presidential campaign. The nation's changing demographics means an older, predominantly white party will continue to shrink in electoral influence. But the elements that make up the current Republican coalition are deeply divided over how, and even whether, to evolve.

Nowhere did the divide between the two camps appear more vividly than in the last week, when speakers at the Conservative Political Action Conference railed against the Republican consultant class while the Republican National Committee's Growth and Opportunity Project pledged a renewed commitment to broadening the coalition to include a larger slice of what the report calls "demographic partners." It was an accident of geography, but an appropriate one, that CPAC took place at National Harbor, a hotel complex just outside the Beltway, while the RNC's report was unveiled at the National Press Club, firmly within I-495's concrete embrace.

Broadly speaking, the Republican divide is between the Acela Corridor--Washington, home of the consultant class, and New York, home of the party's biggest and most reliable donors--and the rest of the nation, where the voters who cast ballots and volunteers who knock on doors do the grunt work of electoral politics.

The Republicans who showed up at the National Press Club represented virtually every element of Acela Corridor Republicanism. Those who wrote the Growth and Opportunity Project report included Henry Barbour, the nephew of former Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour; Sally Bradshaw, a longtime political consultant from Florida who is close with former Gov. Jeb Bush; Ari Fleischer, George W. Bush's old press secretary; and Glenn McCall and Zori Fonalledas, both longtime members of the RNC itself. Call them the Karl Rove Republicans.

But it is the group of committed conservatives who whooped and cheered the speakers at CPAC that has become the dominant faction within the Republican coalition. They are deeply suspicious of Washington, resentful in part at George W. Bush's promise of "compassionate conservatism" that ended up as eight years of bigger government, new entitlement programs, and land wars in the Middle East. They suspect, quite correctly, that the consultant class valued electing someone with an "R" after their name over the longer odds of electing someone who can lay claim to the true title of conservative champion. Call them the Sarah Palin Republicans.

Within this latter group, Rove is persona non grata. John Boehner is a pariah. Even Haley Barbour, who arguably did more to build the electoral capabilities of the modern GOP than anyone still alive today (with the exception, perhaps, of Frank Fahrenkopf, who modernized the RNC's direct-mail fundraising program in the 1980s--and who endorsed Harry Reid over Sharron Angle in 2010), is viewed with skepticism, if not outright scorn.

The CPAC base so zealously guards its independence from Washington that even the hint of involvement in a primary campaign on behalf of a candidate who might appeal better to a certain state's electorate has been the kiss of death in recent years. There was no better way to enrage any top staffer at the National Republican Senatorial Committee than to suggest they could have done more to help a more moderate candidate defeat an unelectable conservative in a primary. They would point first to Charlie Crist, whom they endorsed in Florida in 2010; then to Christine O'Donnell, whom they worked against in Delaware; then to Sharron Angle in Nevada, or Ken Buck in Colorado. Certainly, Marco Rubio proved a conservative could win Florida, but it is politically foolish to say that the party's handpicked candidate wouldn't have done better in Nevada, Colorado, or Delaware.

The list of opportunities missed because a more moderate candidate was passed over in a primary doesn't stop in 2010: For every Ted Cruz, the winning conservative in Texas, there are Richard Mourdocks and Todd Akins who lose Senate seats that should otherwise fall easily into the Republican column. Even those who can win in a wave year, such as a Joe Walsh or an Allen West, cannot hold what are otherwise Republican-leaning seats.

The notion, voiced often at CPAC this year, that the consultant class is to blame has at least some merit. There are certainly professionals in the business who are out to make a quick buck, regardless of whether their candidates win in November. The irony, though, is that there are plenty of professional political operatives who have made a very healthy living over the last three years by appealing to the hearts, minds, and wallets of tea-party activists. Direct-mail solicitation still works; it's even cheaper with the advent of e-mail solicitation, something several national groups that purport to back tea-party candidates have learned, to their advantage, while in truth spending little on actually electing anyone.

Blaming Rove, or anyone other than the 28,000 Republicans who voted for Christine O'Donnell over Mike Castle in Delaware's primary, is laughable. What good would Rove's money, or an influx of big bucks from the NRSC, have done for a candidate who lost by 17 percentage points?

Perhaps the most important part of building a modern Republican Party, one that can win a national election, went unmentioned within the Growth and Opportunity Project report. Beyond modernizing its technology, or generating better data, or even revamping the presidential primary debate process, the factions within the national Republican Party must find a way to coexist in harmony that doesn't dissolve into bloody wounds that last far beyond a primary season.

Here, they can learn from the Democratic Party, which went through the same intra-party bloodbath for a period of two decades in the 1970s and 1980s. The reforms Democrats made to their presidential primary rules after the 1968 convention gave more power to the states; George McGovern, who led the reform commission, and Gary Hart, his top staffer, learned the rules so well McGovern ended up winning the party's nomination in 1972, the first year those rules were in place (Hart was his campaign manager). From 1972 through 1988, the Democratic base nominated a string of liberal losers. The only exception, Jimmy Carter, was the more moderate candidate in a field that included Mo Udall, Jerry Brown and Hubert Humphrey; Carter nearly lost a renomination fight to Ted Kennedy.

It was only after the Democratic Party's liberal base and moderate elements reconciled, uneasily, that the party has grown successful. Today, the party that once viewed Bill Clinton as too near the center includes liberals like Elizabeth Warren and Nancy Pelosi, and centrists like Mark Warner, Heidi Heitkamp and Mary Landrieu.

The Republican Party once embraced moderates. Even at the 1964 Republican National Convention, which nominated Barry Goldwater for president, Oregon Sen. Mark Hatfield, who could today be described as a liberal, gave the keynote address. The party that once counted Richard Lugar, Arlen Specter, Charlie Crist and Mike Castle among its elected officials now shuns all four; Democrats hold two of their seats.

The Republican Party's path back to victory lies, in part, on reconciling the difference between a red state like Texas, a swing state like Virginia and a blue state like Delaware. As Barbour himself likes to say, he could get elected in Mississippi, but he couldn't have won election in a more liberal state. Today, the proliferation of blogs and national political organizations increasingly means conservatives can create a country-wide rallying cry, pumping money into the coffers of a candidate running somewhere across the country. When activists in conservative Texas are helping to pick nominees in liberal Delaware, the disconnect will lead to defeat.

But there is a small and vocal group within the Republican Party whose very existence depends on demanding obedience to conservatism at all costs. Palin, until recently a contributor on Fox News Channel, profited more by losing, and then quitting her job as governor of Alaska, than she would have by sticking around and influencing the policy debate.

Their insistence on conservatism above all else, even when electoral results prove that's not a winning strategy, has had an impact on the current government stalemate in Washington. Republicans in the House of Representatives are keenly attuned to their base's concerns, and in many cases worried about their own prospects in next year's primary elections. That prevents them from agreeing to any but the most conservative deal to lift the debt ceiling, or to fund the government -- in short, the any but the most conservative approach to governing. With a Democratic Senate and a Democrat in the White House, their local politics can force House Republicans to act bold without the political means to back up their words.

Until the Republican Party's coalitions learn to peacefully co-exist, and until their own political considerations back home change, the vicious cycle of bloody primaries and unforced losses in November will continue. The CPAC base that so loathes the consultant class in Washington must decide to heed warnings that conservatism alone doesn't win elections, or be doomed to repeatedly bemoan poor showings in a general election.