Can business take the Republican Party back from the Tea Party?

October 7, 2013
Will Republicans in the House start to face primary challenges from the center if they veer too far to the right? (Photo by Jim Bourg/Reuters)
Will Republicans in the House start to face primary challenges from the center if they veer too far to the right? (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

One of the more enduring mysteries of the last three years has been this: Why does the ostensibly pro-business political party keep doing things that make it harder to do business in the United States? The debt ceiling showdown in 2011 brought market volatility and new uncertainty that exasperated business leaders. This one threatens to do the same, particularly as the nation gets closer and closer to defaulting on its obligations if there is no raise in the debt ceiling by roughly Oct. 17.

Most of the Republican caucus in the House, and their leadership, has views that are broadly aligned with the business community, advocating lower taxes and less regulation, but also an orderly functioning of government. By Robert Costa's count, of the 232 House Republicans, there are only 30 to 40 hard-line Tea Party members of Congress, plus another 50 to 60 Republicans who tend to toe the same line on the most aggressive tactics (read: threatening to allow a default on U.S. government debt if they do not get their way on spending levels and Obamacare).

So a big question for the last couple of years has been: At what point could the extremism from this faction of the Republican party cause blowback from the rest of the party? And will the latest confidence-rattling showdown by the source of a new wave of such blowback?

The Post's Philip Rucker has a report on new signs — early hints at this point — that that is starting to happen. He focuses on a possible challenge to Rep. Justin Amash, a Michigan tea partier, supported by many in the local business community. “I don't see him as a collaborator, and I think that’s a huge problem,” Meg Goebel, an insurance executive and former chair of the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, told Rucker. “People used to say, ‘I don’t like the Congress, but I like my congressman.’ I don't think that’s the case anymore.”

There isn't much evidence for now that this is more than an isolated case. The other examples of the trend that Rucker notes of primary challenges include the likes of Rep. Scott DesJarlais of Tennessee, whose sex scandals are probably a bigger deal than his hard-line conservatism.

At the same time, what happens over the next year in Republican primaries will be the most telling thing for determining the future of the party, and governance of the United States more broadly.

Right now, Republicans in strongly Republican-leaning congressional districts (which is most of them) face asymmetrical incentives. With Republican primary voters indicating in surveys a strong preference to principle over compromise, they can easily face a primary challenge from the right. But there is no comparable pressure from the left, either in the form of credible centrist primary challenges, or, (due to gerrymandering that creates heavily conservative districts) Democrats in the general election. Politicians who only fear threats from one political direction are inevitably going to veer entirely in that direction.

If you want a world in which the Republican party in the House is a more traditional minority party that negotiates and gets a few concessions but doesn't threaten to blow up the world if it doesn't get its way, it will start with those asymmetrical risks facing House Republicans becoming more symmetrical.

Congressional district boundaries are redrawn only once a decade, following the census, and so the lack of credible challenges from Democrats in the general election isn't going to change any time soon. So if the Republican party is going to change, it will be because of businesspeople such as Meg Goebel pushing for more pragmatic, compromise-oriented Republicans in the party's primaries.

And it wouldn't take a ton of those candidates running and winning to change the tenor of the caucus. A handful of high-profile losses would change the asymmetry problem facing Republican lawmakers if they began to conclude that they could just as well face a primary challenge for being too absolutist and extreme as they could for being too weak-kneed and compromise-oriented.

All that said, so far the business-oriented, pragmatic wing of the Republican coalition has done more private grumbling about their Tea Party brethren than outright intra-party warfare. The question for 2014 is whether the current shutdown and debt ceiling crisis pushes them to actually recruit and fund candidates — and whether Republican primary voters in at least a few districts buy the pitch those candidates are selling.

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