As GOP celebrates victories, ideological battles between moderates and conservatives remain

Republican Chris Christie addresses supporters after beating incumbent Jon S. Corzine in New Jersey's gubernatorial election. That and other GOP wins are expected to help energize the party's base.
Republican Chris Christie addresses supporters after beating incumbent Jon S. Corzine in New Jersey's gubernatorial election. That and other GOP wins are expected to help energize the party's base. (Henry Ray Abrams/associated Press)
By Philip Rucker and Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 5, 2009

A rebounding Republican Party is savoring victories in two states that President Obama won last year, but as it tries to build momentum toward what GOP Chairman Michael S. Steele called a "Republican renaissance," it faces troubling ideological fissures within its ranks over how best to reclaim power.

As the party turns toward the 2010 midterm elections, pitched battles between moderates and conservatives -- and between the Washington establishment and the conservative grass roots -- are underway from Florida to Illinois to California. Conservative activists, emboldened after forcing out the moderate Republican nominee in a New York congressional race, said they will fan out nationwide and challenge Republican candidates whom they deem too moderate or insufficiently principled.

In response, some candidates are laboring to shed their moderate credentials to survive bruising primary battles. In Illinois, Rep. Mark Kirk, a moderate whom party leaders embrace as the best hope for an open Senate seat, wrote to an adviser to former Alaska governor Sarah Palin (R) seeking her endorsement -- an effort to preempt the kind of revolt Palin helped lead against moderate Dede Scozzafava in the race in New York's 23rd Congressional District.

In Connecticut, GOP Senate candidate and former congressman Rob Simmons, regarded in Congress as a New England moderate, is linking himself to the tea party movement and carries a tea bag in his pocket along with a copy of the Constitution to try to fend off conservative primary challengers.

The party's fortunes in next year's midterm elections may rest in its ability to harness a populist wave of voter discontent with Washington and government spending. But the surprising Democratic victory in the New York congressional election -- despite the intervention of conservative activists -- for a seat the GOP held for more than a century was sobering evidence that rallying behind conservative candidates may not be the answer.

In Washington, some party leaders worry that viable moderate candidates could be damaged if they bow to conservative pressures, particularly in Senate races in California, Connecticut, Illinois, Kentucky and New Hampshire. Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, cautioned that hotly contested primaries could leave eventual nominees "broke and bloody."

"We need to temper our conservative approach with pragmatism," he said.

But Cornyn, under siege by conservative activists for endorsing candidates before primaries, said Wednesday that the NRSC will not provide money to the candidates it has endorsed until the general election campaigns.

"I don't think Republicans can rest on their laurels and just sort of enjoy this, because I think there is a significant anti-Washington component of this, and the grass roots around the country want to know: 'Who are you listening to? Are you listening to us, or are you listening to some party elites in Washington?' " Cornyn said.

Republicans were jubilant Wednesday after Chris Christie defeated New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine (D) and GOP candidates swept three statewide races in Virginia, with Steele saying the GOP is "a transcendent party" on the move again. The victories probably will help energize the base and recruit formidable candidates to challenge Democrats in next year's midterm elections.

"As recently as a couple of months ago, Republicans were written off," Steele said. But, he added, "the Republican renaissance has begun in earnest."

Some Republicans said a successful blueprint may be the Virginia gubernatorial victory of Robert F. McDonnell, a social conservative who campaigned as a moderate and appealed to independent voters on kitchen-table issues such as the economy and jobs. But party leaders must balance that moderation with the conservative uprising.

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