What if the tea party decides to walk away from the GOP in 2016? It could happen.

The relationship (or lack thereof) between the mainstream of the Republican party and the tea party has long been pooh-poohed by GOP strategists as standard operating procedure for a party out of the White House. The base and the establishment feud and, in the end, the base falls in line, they argue. But what if the tea party movement represents something new -- and less manageable -- for the establishment heading into the 2016 presidential race?


U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) speaks during the inaugural Freedom Summit meeting for conservative speakers in Manchester, New Hampshire April 12, 2014. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)

That's the question Reed Galen, a California-based Republican strategist, raises in a blog post entitled: "The Republican (r)Evolution". Writes Galen:

While parties typically have a hard-core, somewhat disaffected minority, they are usually swept along with the current of a larger movement.

However, in the case of the Tea Party, their lack of central organization and strict adherence to ideology over politics makes them a potent ingredient tossed into the evolutionary soup.

That the Establishment wing of the party is either unwilling or unable to co-opt them for the larger goal of winning major elections shows just how exotic an addition to the mix the Tea Party is. They won’t do what you want them to unless they’ve already made up their mind to do it. Reasoning with them doesn’t work because their starting point isn’t based in rationality but passion.

Galen's question is a powerful one -- particularly in light of how the GOP establishment in Congress has changed its tactics in dealing with the tea party over the last few years. Riding high off of a 2010 midterm election fueled by tea party energy, newly-installed Speaker John Boehner and the rest of his leadership team seemed convinced that, after a few months, the tea party caucus would start to realize that they needed to go along to get along.

Yeah, not so much.  Time after time over the least three-plus years, Boehner has seen his priorities thwarted by his own conference -- roughly four dozen of whom clumped in the tea party wing simply will not support anything he backs.  By late last year, Boeher appeared fed up -- unleashing a now famous/infamous "are you kidding me?" in reaction to the tea party's approach to the government shutdown.

On the Senate side, a similar trajectory has emerged.  After largely humoring tea party groups between 2010 and 2012, the establishment has begun to fight back.  Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who himself is facing a tea party primary in Kentucky on May 20, has led the offensive, telling the New York Times last month: “I think we are going to crush [the tea party-aligned outside groups] everywhere. I don’t think they are going to have a single nominee anywhere in the country.”

Given that, it's not unreasonable to think that a similar out-in-the-open political brawl is coming for the big prize: The 2016 presidential nomination.  The lines are already drawn -- albeit somewhat crudely -- with Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul on the tea party side and people like Govs. Jeb Bush, Scott Walker and Chris Christie as well as Sen. Marco Rubio representing the establishment side.

Now, someone will win that fight -- that's the good thing about campaigns, someone always wins. But, the broader issue raised by Galen is whether the loser -- assuming it is the tea party wing -- will simply fold itself into the Republican party or go its own way.

Data suggests that the answer is far from resolved. A March Washington Post-ABC News national poll showed that while tea party supporters are more Republican than Democratic, they are far from monolithic for the GOP.  Thirty eight percent of tea party supporters identified themselves as Republicans while 14 percent called themselves Democrats. The biggest chunk -- 39 percent -- said they were independents. (The party ID among all adults in that poll broke down this way: 30 percent Democrats, 22 percent Republicans and 40 percent independents.)

We've written extensively about the major demographic challenges facing Republicans in 2016 and beyond. Should the party's nominee not be able to unite the base -- and that's a big "if" since the enemy of my enemy is my friend argument usually wins out in presidential contests -- that would be a catastrophic development for the GOP's chances of winning back the White House.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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