After spending much of the last few years trying to placate a growing universe of outside groups demanding complete fealty to conservative principles, the Republican establishment is showing signs of being mad as hell and not willing to take it anymore.
Extending an olive branch to GOP senators, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is privately making it clear he won’t engage in the Senate Conservatives Fund’s hardball tactics to defeat his colleagues in their primary races. At a closed-door lunch meeting of Senate Republicans Wednesday, the freshman conservative told his colleagues that he would not intervene in their 2014 primary fights or fundraise for the controversial outside group. Cruz added that the SCF’s decision to try to defeat sitting GOP senators in their primaries was its alone, according to several people familiar with the session.
Cruz spokeswoman Catherine Frazier said she wouldn't comment on a private lunch but added that Cruz's position on not participating in election activity for the Senate Conservatives Fund, which grew out of former South Carolina senator Jim DeMint's political world, is nothing new. "In accordance with his previous comments that he will likely not get involved in any incumbent primaries, he won't be involved in endorsements or fundraising for SCF to that end," said Frazier.
Matt Hoskins, who runs SCF, pointed us to a statement the group put out before it began endorsing Senate candidates earlier this month. "We have enjoyed working with Ted Cruz, Mike Lee and Rand Paul on several policy issues this year, but we won't be asking them to support our candidates," Hoskins said in the statement. (The SCF has endorsed primary challengers to Sens. Mitch McConnell and Thad Cochran as well as candidates running for Senate in Louisiana and Nebraska.)
There are other signs of an establishment fed up with the tactics of groups like SCF.
Back in August, Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, who is seen as a possible 2014 target by tea party conservatives, penned an op-ed in the Nashville Tennessean in which he denounced the all-or-nothing tactics that some within the party advocate. Wrote Alexander:
“I learned to count in Maryville City Schools. So I know that if you only have 45 votes and you need 60 senators to get something important done like balancing the budget and fixing the debt, then you have to work with other people — that is, IF you really care about solving the problem, IF you really want to get a result, instead of just making a speech."
Or a story earlier this week in the Lexington Herald Leader in which a longtime McConnell political strategist explained his boss's approach to a primary challenge from SCF-backed Matt Bevin. "Leader McConnell will beat his opponent because he is more in line with Kentucky Republicans and in doing so will send a message to the groups that purity for profit is a losing strategy," Billy Piper said.
The moral of the story? That after years of trying to make nice with the growing constellation of tea party groups, the GOP establishment has realized that there isn't likely to be a peaceful detente any time soon. Groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund don't want to win a seat at the establishment table. They want to tip the table over and take an ax to it.
Here's how Piper, the McConnell ally, framed the fight in an e-mail exchange with The Fix Wednesday night: "It is not so much establishment versus outsiders as it is those who feel a responsibility to steer the country toward better times and those who seek to profit off of artificial measures of partisan purity."
That is a drastically different approach than even a few months back. And it's a sign that people like McConnell and Alexander are sick and tired of sitting back and watching their political record vilified as insufficiently conservative. The true test, of course, will come next year when Republican voters in places like Kentucky and Tennessee decide what sort of leaders they want.
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