Conservative Republicans fight back after Romney loss

Evangelical leaders and conservative activists have a simple message for establishment Republicans about Mitt Romney’s failed presidential bid: We told you so.

After nearly two weeks of listening to GOP officials pledge to assert greater control over the party and its most strident voices in the wake of Romney’s loss, grass-roots activists have begun to fight back, saying that they are not to blame for the party’s losses in November.

“The moderates have had their candidate in 2008 and they had their candidate in 2012. And they got crushed in both elections. Now they tell us we have to keep moderating. If we do that, will we win?” said Bob Vander Plaats, president of the Family Leader. Vander Plaats is an influential Christian conservative who opposed Romney in the Iowa caucuses 10 months ago and opposed Sen. John McCain’s candidacy four years ago.

The conservative backlash sets up an internal fight for the direction of the Republican Party, as many top leaders in Washington have proposed moderating their views on citizenship for illegal immigrants, to appeal to Latino voters. In addition, many top GOP officials have called for softening the party’s rhetoric on social issues, following the embarrassing showing by Senate candidates who were routed after publicly musing about denying abortion services to women who had been raped.

Ted Cruz, a tea party favorite, trounced Texas’s establishment candidate in a primary on his way to becoming the second Hispanic Republican in the Senate, and the battle he waged in the Lone Star State epitomizes the fight between the two sides. Although he is considered a rising star with a personal biography that GOP leaders wish to promote, Cruz falls squarely in the camp that thinks Romney was not conservative enough and did not fully articulate a conservative contrast to President Obama, except during the first presidential debate.

“It was the one time we actually contested ideas, presented two viewpoints and directions for the country,” he said at the Federalist Society’s annual dinner in Washington. “And then, inevitably, there are these mandarins of politics, who give the voice: ‘Don’t show any contrasts. Don’t rock the boat.’ So by the third debate, I’m pretty certain Mitt Romney actually French-kissed Barack Obama.”

Rick Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania who finished second to Romney in the GOP primary, lampooned Romney’s assertion that Obama’s victory was fueled by “gifts” to core liberal constituencies in the form of legislative favors.

“The American people do not want ‘gifts’ from their leaders, particularly when these gifts leave a steep bill for our children to pay, but they do want us to be on their side,” Santorum wrote in a USA Today op-ed published Monday. He placed the blame on the national party, saying it lacked an appealing agenda: “We as a party, the party of Ronald Reagan and ‘Morning in America,’ failed to provide an agenda that shows we care.”

The dispute began to take shape soon after Obama was declared the winner and Republicans, who had hoped to claim the Senate majority, lost two seats. Two days after the election, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) told ABC News that the Republicans’ mission was to appeal to nonwhite voters: “How do we speak to all Americans? You know, not just to people who look like us and act like us, but how do we speak to all Americans?”

The fight ahead will come in two phases, the first being legislative debates on taxes, entitlements and immigration, and the second in the GOP primary battles in the 2014 midterm elections.

Congressional Republican leaders have rejected Obama’s call for higher tax rates on the wealthiest Americans, but they have opened the door to more revenue streaming into the Treasury by limiting exemptions and closing loopholes as part of a broad tax-code overhaul. The president says those measures would not produce enough revenue.

More problematic for Republicans is the drift of Hispanic voters into the Democratic fold. Obama won among Hispanic voters by 44 percentage points this year, up eight points from 2008.

“Hispanics are an ever-important part of the electorate that can’t be ignored. The scope of the challenge is broad, but there is opportunity ahead for conservatives to engage,” Jennifer S. Korn of the Hispanic Leadership Network, a Republican-funded group designed to do outreach, wrote in a memo circulated over the weekend.

Korn warned that two reliably Republican states worth 49 electoral votes combined could become swing states if demographic trendlines continue. In 2004, George W. Bush tied in the Hispanic vote in Texas and lost in Arizona by 13 percentage points. Romney lost the Hispanic vote by more than 40 points in both states.

After several years of focusing on border security as the centerpiece of their immigration proposals, many senior party officials have reversed course and suggested that they should at least support the DREAM Act, which would allow the children of illegal immigrants to avoid deportation.

Such a move would spark a huge internal fight with some conservatives. Dan Stein, president of the hard-line Federation for American Immigration Reform, insisted that the 2012 election was decided on issues other than immigration and that the push for the party to change its position represents opportunism by those who have always favored a more accommodating approach. He said the party’s elite is captive to business interests who favor increased immigration to reduce labor costs.

“There’s no evidence, none, that amnesty will bond Hispanics to the Republican Party,” he said. “This post-election chatter is coming from people who, for the most part, have generally disagreed with the need for stronger border control or less immigration. . . . This is going to be a long, protracted debate.”

The 2014 Senate races will serve as a test for establishment control of the political process. For the third consecutive cycle, Republicans will begin as heavy favorites to gain a large bloc of seats, and some party leaders want a bigger role in choosing those nominees. In 2010 and 2012, Republicans say, bad nominees in Colorado, Delaware, Indiana, Missouri and Nevada cost them what should have been easy victories. If those seats were in GOP hands today, the Senate would be deadlocked at 50-50.

Some outside groups, however, stand ready to fight for the most conservative nominee, pointing to Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) as examples of rising stars who won Senate races without establishment support.

“The party is rarely in a position to determine the best candidate,” said Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth. “When you have someone who can articulate a clear, convincing, conservative message, they win.”

Paul Kane covers Congress and politics for the Washington Post.
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