For old-school GOP, a hard lesson on fiscal issues

By Marc A. Thiessen
Monday, April 5, 2010

For years, establishment Republicans have urged the party's conservative wing to get over its obsession with social issues and focus on fiscal issues. Well, in 2010 they are getting their wish. The nation is experiencing a popular backlash against the expansion of government and runaway federal spending, and across the country fiscally conservative candidates are taking advantage of this popular groundswell -- in some cases to the detriment of establishment Republican candidates.

In Texas, for example, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison challenged Gov. Rick Perry in the Republican primary and started out with a commanding lead. But Perry successfully portrayed Hutchison as having become part of the Washington establishment -- dubbing her "Kay Bailout" and running an ad tagging her the "Earmark Queen" (to the tune of Abba's "Dancing Queen"). Hutchison responded by declaring that her success in bringing money home for Texas should be "celebrated and appreciated." Apparently, Texans are not in a celebratory or appreciative mood. She lost to Perry 51 percent to 30 percent. (Indeed, anti-Washington sentiment in Texas is so strong that a little-known, underfunded Tea Party candidate garnered 18 percent of the vote).

In Utah, 18-year incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett is similarly being portrayed as a symbol of all that is wrong with Washington. Bennett has drawn seven Republican primary challengers, and the ire of conservative activists such RedState's Erick Erickson and the fiscally conservative Club for Growth. The club has set up a Web site,, and launched ads and robocalls declaring that Bennett "voted to bail out Wall Street, voted for billions in wasteful spending like Alaska's 'Bridge to Nowhere,' and even joined with liberals supporting big government health care." (Bennett co-authored health-care legislation with liberal Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) that the club calls "a trillion-dollar government takeover of health care that rivals Obamacare for being a massive big government proposal.")

In response, Bennett has touted his ability to bring home the bacon for his constituents. He recently told the New York Times that he decided to seek a fourth term because he was eager to become the senior Republican on the energy and water appropriations subcommittee -- a position he could use to help Utah. In normal times, this might have been a powerful campaign pitch. But these are not normal times, and such arguments make Bennett appear out of touch with the anti-Washington sentiment of Utah voters.

Bennett struggled in the recent Republican caucuses, which pick delegates for the state party convention. According to the Deseret News, only about one in five delegates from the last state party convention were re-elected this year -- ominous news for Bennett. If he fails to win the support of 60 percent of delegates at the convention, there will be a Republican primary -- and it is not clear that he can win enough votes at that convention to be one of the two candidates competing for the nomination.

In Florida, moderate Republican Gov. Charlie Crist seemed like a shoo-in when he declared his candidacy for the U.S. Senate last year. In March 2009, a Mason-Dixon poll showed him leading Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio by a wide margin. No longer. Rubio gained traction by hammering Crist's decision to embrace Barack Obama (literally and figuratively) and support the president's unpopular stimulus bill. In a recent debate, Rubio declared: "Since that famous day in February where the governor campaigned with Barack Obama on behalf of the stimulus program, 211,000 Floridians have lost their jobs. . . . The choice for Republicans in Florida is: Do you want a candidate that would have stood up to Barack Obama, voted against the stimulus. . . or do you want the next Republican senator from Florida to be someone who would have voted with the Democrats for the stimulus package?" According to, most Florida Republicans have an answer: Rubio's lead over Crist now stands at a commanding 56 percent to 31 percent.

The message for the GOP establishment is clear -- be careful what you wish for. For too long, it turned up its nose at the grassroots activism of social conservatives and said they should focus on fiscal issues that unite the party. Now, the grassroots activism of fiscal conservatives is driving the debate in races across the country. This popular movement for limited government and fiscal responsibility might well sweep the Democrats out of power in November -- but it might also sweep some establishment Republicans out with them.

Marc A. Thiessen, a visiting fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, writes a weekly column for The Post and is author of "Courting Disaster."

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