Top 5 Priorities for the GOP in Coming Months

Josh Kraushaar

In the wake of a difficult 2012 cycle featuring weak and not-ready-for-prime-time candidates, Republican leaders are looking to assert more control over the nomination and recruitment processes. As Politico reported Monday, the party’s Senate campaign committee is plotting to “prevent more Todd Akins” from emerging over the next two years.

But there are already indications that the mission to stop unelectable candidates from emerging is a lot harder than advertised.  In the two upcoming off-year gubernatorial elections, an assertive right could complicate Virginia Republican prospects in a crucial off-year election and act as a nuisance as Christie prepares for a tough campaign for a second term. Two Republican Congressional firebrands are already considering Senate bids of their own, and would be as potent in primaries even though they’d be highly vulnerable in general elections.  And there are already rumblings among conservative activists about challenging several of their own incumbents up for re-election in 2014, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

How various party leaders navigate these challenges will go a long way in assessing the party’s future direction – and whether they have the power to control the often-unruly grassroots.  It will show whether activists will tolerate a center-right Republican, like Christie, who will occasionally stray from conservative orthodoxy   It will indicate whether Republicans can afford to sound a more moderate note on immigration without risking retribution from the base.  

Here are the five of the biggest priorities for the Republican establishment in the coming months. Their successes on these fronts will indicate whether they've learned the right lessons from missed opportunities over the last two cycles.

1. Nominating a Republican who can appeal to the rising Virginia electorate: The earliest showdown is shaping up in the Old Dominion, where lieutenant governor Bill Bolling is squaring off for the gubernatorial nomination against Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.  The nomination fight has suddenly taken on more urgency, in the wake of President Obama’s victory in the state for the second straight election.  Virginia is now a decidedly purple state, and with its more-Democratic parts growing fastest, may even lean Democratic in future presidential elections.

But conservatives in the state haven’t bought that message, at least not yet.  Bolling is already sounding the alarm that the conservative Cuccinelli would be near-unelectable in the Old Dominion, thanks to his outspoken socially conservative views and often-strident rhetoric. But despite holding the support of popular Gov. Bob McDonnell, Bolling faces a tough challenge, given that state party leaders opted to choose the nominee through a closed convention instead of an open primary – a process that empowers the most conservative elements of the party.  Virginia GOP operatives privately believe Cuccinelli is the heavy favorite to emerge as the nominee.

Cuccinelli has shown impressive political acumen throughout his career, holding a Northern Virginia Senate seat for seven years and winning 57 percent of the vote in his Attorney General race. But a gubernatorial campaign is a different ballgame and his socially conservative views will receive much scrutiny.  No one expects him to moderate his positions, but if he’s the nominee, he’d have to emphasize economic issues, and argue he’s best-positioned to continue the McDonnell legacy. The makeup of the Virginia electorate won’t be as Democratic as it was last year, but it probably won’t be as favorable as it was for McDonnell in 2009, either.

Virginia has a long history of electing a governor of the opposite party to the president, and that streak would favor the Republican nominee in 2013.  If a Democrat breaks that record – especially a non-native Virginian like Terry McAuliffe -- it would suggest that the state party hasn’t learned many lessons from 2012 about the changing nature of the state.

2.  Keeping the base on board with Christie:  Gov. Chris Christie has gone from one of the most popular Republicans – a front-runner in early 2016 presidential polling – to one being openly questioned about his loyalty to the Republican party for embracing President Obama’s support in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.  Last Sunday, the Drudge Report mocked Christie’s appearance on Saturday Night Live, saying he was clowning around as his constituents suffer in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.  He received a lukewarm reception from his GOP colleagues at last week’s Republican Governors’ Association, according to the New York Times, even as he prepares to chair the organization in 2014.  It’s a notable departure from the near-unanimous plaudits the straight-talking governor received from the right, pre-Sandy.

Most political observers believe Christie’s standing back home has been strengthened by his hurricane response.  He’s received newfound appreciation from Democrats, who have publicly praised his governance.  Newark Mayor Cory Booker, the Democrats’ only bona fide prospect, may have some second thoughts about running against Christie in the wake of the governor’s popularity boomlet.

But for the GOP, the bigger question is whether Christie’s bipartisan pivot will earn him long-term blowback from the right.  One early test will be whether anyone challenges him in a primary from the right. He’s a lock to be re-nominated, but if he receives a credible opponent, it would indicate the demand for conservative orthodoxy is quite high – even in a blue, Northeastern state like New Jersey.  Remember: Christie only won 55 percent in the 2009 primary against Steve Lonegan, a Bergen County mayor, despite receiving support from most party organizations.  As a popular incumbent, he’s in better shape this time, which would make it all the more self-defeating for conservative detractors to wound him before a competitive general election.

3.  Encouraging Steve King to stay in the House.  One of the first signs that Republicans are willing to more aggressively intervene in their primaries came from Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who all but urged tea party favorite Steve King to stay out of the state’s Senate race.  At the RGA’s annual meeting, Branstad told my colleague Reid Wilson that he didn’t think King could win statewide, and preferred his more-establishment colleague to run Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa.  It’s the kind of sentiment that party leaders recently expressed behind closed doors, but now are being more open about their concerns.

Branstad’s worries, however, could fall on deaf ears.  King, who said he’s considering a bid, would be well-positioned to win support from evangelical voters in the western half of the state, and his anti-illegal immigration rhetoric offers loads of red meat to the base.  Just look at the Iowa Republican presidential caucus results, for a sense of the party sentiment. 

In a Senate cycle filled with Republican opportunities, Iowa isn’t an absolute must-win for the GOP.  But if someone like King runs and undermines their chances early on, it’s a signal the tea party movement is alive, well, and isn’t backing down.

4. Keeping Michele Bachmann in check.  Unlike Iowa, Minnesota offers Republicans one of their best Senate pickup opportunities in 2014.  Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., has kept a low profile, but barely won in a great year for Democrats and should garner serious opposition.  But the big question is whether the elephant in the room – Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn – will make a play for the seat, or sit still in the House.

If past is prologue, Bachmann is bound to be interested.  She doesn’t have much interest for the nitty-gritty of legislating, and a high-profile Senate race would be another major platform for her to aspire to in the wake of a presidential debacle.  A Bachmann candidacy would be a nightmare for GOP campaign officials.   She barely won re-election to her solidly-Republican House seat after an embarrassing finish in the Iowa presidential caucus. Still, she could scare off other Republican contenders because of her imposing fundraising and star power among tea party activists.

The big questions: Will her disappointing presidential campaign chasten her, or embolden her to run for the Senate and rebuild her image?  And what can GOP campaign officials offer, if anything, to encourage her to stick around the House for another two years?

5. Avoiding primary challenges against Senate incumbents.  In the last two election years, Republican primary voters have ousted at least one sitting senator from Congress.  In 2010, it was Utah’s Robert Bennett. In 2012, it was Indiana’s Richard Lugar.  And in both cycles, the demand for party purity ended up costing Republicans several seats, including Lugar’s. Whether the threat still exits in 2014 will go a long way in determining whether the grassroots energy will be trained on taking back the Senate, or more focused on intramural battles.

The three most inviting targets this time around are: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, and Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss. After the election, RedState publisher Erick Erickson specifically named McConnell as a top target, arguing a challenge was necessary “just to drive the point home we aim to fight” party leadership.  But of the three, McConnell is the strongest shape, and has already been working to dissuade anyone from challenging him. He tapped Sen. Rand Paul’s 2010 campaign manager Jesse Benton to run his campaign, a shrewd move positioned to win over conservative critics dissatisfied with his establishment profile. 

Graham is potentially more vulnerable, but only if a credible challenger steps up.  The Club for Growth, which has a solid track record beating Republicans in primaries, signaled Graham was its top Republican target in a post-election briefing.  And Graham has been a constant thorn in the side of immigration restrictionists, as one of the earliest GOP supporters of comprehensive immigration reform.  Despite a lot of bluster in 2008 – at the peak of the anti-illegal immigration activism – Graham didn’t draw a top primary challenger, and he won with 67 percent.   It would take the involvement of outside groups, pledging money to an opponent, to change that dynamic for 2014.

Chambliss is shaping up to be the most inviting target, given his bipartisan inclinations.  The Tea Party is alive and well in Georgia, and there are no shortage of potential challengers. Rep. Tom Price is exploring a bid, according to Roll Call and other conservative members of the delegation aren’t ruling anything out.