As GOP celebrates wins, internal ideological battles remain

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.

Despite the loss in New York, conservative activists cast the experience as a victory for the movement because it signaled the strength they could bring to Republican primaries next year.

"The center of the electorate is for limited government and tolerance on social issues," said Chris Chocola, president of the conservative Club for Growth. "If the Republicans want to grow the tent, I think they should look at limited government, and then the candidates can reflect the social views of their districts."

Palin, one of the first national Republican leaders to break with Scozzafava, wrote on her Facebook page that the fight is "not over, just postponed until 2010."

Former House majority leader Richard K. Armey, whose Freedom Works group organizes tea party protests, said grass-roots conservatives "run to the sound of the guns. . . . There are a lot of races out there where we see possibilities that there will be a grass-roots uprising against the Republican nominee on behalf of some grass-roots or small-government conservatives."

Former Florida House speaker Marco Rubio, running against Gov. Charlie Crist in the GOP primary for an open Senate seat, said: "Some believe the way the Republican Party grows is by becoming more like Democrats. Others, including myself, agree that the way you grow the party is by embracing a mainstream limited-government message."

National Democrats, meanwhile, are nearly salivating over the GOP's civil war.

"They've handcuffed themselves," said Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "The most important thing is that Republicans keep moving to the right. A Republican candidate moving to the right in a blue state is never a good sign for viability in a general election."

Former GOP congressman Tom Davis (Va.) said Republicans must harness a "tinker box for voter anger" to make meaningful victories in 2010. "The challenge for Republicans is to catch that lightening in a bottle and build a coalition that can lead you to huge congressional gains," Davis said. "But it's easier said than done."

Some party leaders sounded calls for moderation, suggesting that McDonnell's campaign may be a road map for beating Democrats in perennial swing states such as Florida.

"Everybody who wants to defeat [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi in 2010 and who wants to defeat Obama in 2012 needs to look at the positive lessons of Virginia and New Jersey -- and then has to look seriously at what are a couple of big negative lessons of New York 23," said former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).

Still, the intraparty schism burst open Wednesday in California, where former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina announced she will run against Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) next year. Fiorina is a moderate with the private backing of some national party officials, but tea party activists already have circled in on her as their next casualty.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) endorsed her primary opponent, conservative State Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, by citing DeVore's "willingness to stand up against his own party leaders."

"We need to shake up the Republican Party," DeMint said, adding: "You're going to see an army of Americans fighting for freedom in this next election."

Staff writer Chris Cillizza contributed to this report.

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