RNC chief Steele opposes purity test for Republican candidates

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 28, 2010

HONOLULU -- Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele said Wednesday that he opposes a controversial "purity" resolution that would keep party money from candidates deemed to be too moderate, all but ensuring the defeat of a proposal that divided GOP leaders as they opened their four-day winter meeting here Wednesday.

The proposal, introduced by some of the RNC's more conservative members, would require that candidates publicly state their agreement with at least eight of 10 listed conservative positions -- ranging from taxes and immigration to same-sex marriage and gun control -- or lose party funding and support. Although Steele has not seen the final text of the resolution, named after the late president Ronald Reagan, he is siding with some two dozen state party chairmen who voted unanimously Wednesday to oppose it.

"Litmus tests don't work," Steele told reporters. "They don't build parties, they don't build relationships, they can be divisive." He went on to call the proposal a "slippery slope."

"This is not the business of the RNC," Steele said. "Ronald Reagan would be ashamed if the party moved in that direction."

Hoping to create political momentum after Republican Scott Brown's upset Senate victory in Massachusetts last week, party leaders said they believe they can seize Democratic-held congressional seats and governor's offices in November's midterm elections. But undermining that confidence is an ideological split that has come into focus with the proposed purity resolution. The committee's more moderate members -- and even some conservatives -- oppose it out of fear that it would alienate independent voters at a time when they appear to be abandoning the Democratic Party in droves.

The RNC's 168 members are expected to vote Friday on the resolution, but in a preliminary move, about two dozen state chairmen opposed the measure in a non-binding vote during a Wednesday morning session, said Dick Wadhams, chairman of the Colorado Republican Party.

James Bopp Jr., a committee member from Indiana who wrote the resolution, said in an interview that it is designed to bring conservatives, some of whom have gravitated to the independent "tea party" movement, into the GOP fold. He said there is a danger of disaffected conservatives backing third-party candidates -- as happened in a special congressional election last fall in Upstate New York -- and taking away support from Republican nominees.

"It's the difference between success and defeat," Bopp said. "It's counterproductive for us to moderate our conservative message. We've tried that, and it failed."

Eric Odom, executive director of American Liberty Alliance, a tea-party group, described the purity test as a good start but said it does not go far enough. "I see nine of those planks that I would want to be almost mandatory before it could be taken seriously," Odom said in an interview. "The GOP should not give its candidates any room to squirm."

Members who oppose Bopp's resolution are working privately to come up with an alternative before Friday's vote that would declare the party's conservative principles but do so without imposing a litmus test on each candidate. They argue that even Brown, the current darling of the party, would not pass Bopp's purity test.

"We need to stick to our conservative principles without telling folks in the Massachusetts GOP that their choice for a U.S. Senate nominee cannot receive funding because of some litmus test," said Henry Barbour, a conservative RNC member and nephew of Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R).

Gentry Collins, the RNC's political director, told reporters Wednesday: "Tea-party voters have a home in the Republican Party. We've given them a viable outlet for their energy and, candidly, they've helped us win."

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