The 2014 primary season, while leaving the Republicans in good shape for the fall elections against the Democrats, has done little to quiet their internal turmoil or to provide a winning formula going forward.
As Republicans struggle to understand the electoral earthquake that cost House Majority Leader Eric Cantor his suburban Richmond seat Tuesday, the party confronts a paradox: It is dominated more by conservatives than at any time in memory and yet riven with divisions, including over issues that barely registered even two years ago.
That presents a tricky challenge to those who are seeking the 2016 GOP nomination in a presidential primary where there will be splits over immigration, trade, the government’s role in education, and foreign policy, among other topics.
Internal battles have been waged over issues as large as whether to provide a path to citizenship for people who have entered the country illegally and the Common Core standards for schools to smaller, more symbolic ones, such as whether to eliminate the Export-Import Bank. The dynamics of the issues and the coalitions around them are shifting so rapidly that what looks like a safe position today could be a lethal one by the time the Iowa caucuses roll around.
The dissonance was on display over the weekend at two events where the party’s potential 2016 contenders were out in force.
At the GOP state convention in Iowa, former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who won the 2012 caucuses, was sounding the populist theme that has been at the center of his message this year.
“Years ago, when I was growing up, the Republican Party was the country club set, it was the corporate set. It was the 1 percent,” Santorum told the gathering. “If you look at the surveys right now, those folks aren’t voting Republican anymore, ladies and gentlemen. The 1 percent are not Republicans, by and large.”
But, Santorum lamented, “our message is all about corporatism and business.”
That this is a problem would have come as a surprise in tony Park City, Utah, where 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney was holding a schmoozefest at which his biggest donors mingled with at least a half-dozen of the figures being talked about as prospective 2016 candidates.
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee offered the well-heeled GOP establishment an affirmation. “This nonsense going around about how we’ve got to be apologetic about people having done well is crazy,” he said.
One thing is becoming clear: Having it both ways on anything is becoming more and more difficult in the Republican Party.
“It is going to be very hard to game that out, for a candidate to be safe on all those issues,” said Lanhee Chen, who was policy director for Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and corporate establishment favorite who had to battle a series of upstart challengers on his way to the 2012 nomination.
“They’re all going to have some explaining to do,” added former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who was an early casualty in the battle for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination. “We have seen that happen every cycle before, and each time it gets a little tougher.”
The party is more consistently to the right today than it has been in modern times, certainly more than it was in Ronald Reagan’s days. The Gallup poll has about 70 percent of Republicans identifying themselves as conservative.
But arising within that broad worldview are an increasing number of policy trip wires — separating the corporate-friendly establishment branch of the party from the passionate tea party faction, the stalwart social conservatives from the ascendant libertarians.
No prospective presidential candidate fits comfortably into all of those worlds, said Matthew Dowd, who was a top strategist for George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign.
He cited such disparate figures as firebrand tea party champion Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), libertarian Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) and former Florida governor Jeb Bush, whom many in the establishment are yearning to see run.
“Every one of them has elements of it, but nobody has a unifying message,” Dowd said.
And just because Republicans often sound alike doesn’t mean they act alike, argues Chris Chocola, president of the fiscally conservative group Club for Growth.
“They all say the same thing,” favoring limited government and less debt, Chocola said. “The problem is, only a few of them actually do that.”
Indeed, many of the biggest fights in Congress in recent years have been among Republicans — over agriculture and highway bills, disaster relief, taxes, earmarks, export subsidies, trade, automatic spending cuts and the debt ceiling. What grass-roots activists often see as betrayal, establishment Republicans portray as the realities of governing.
All of this is being played out against the party’s effort to find its footing and its identity in time to prevent the 2016 presidential election from becoming the third in a row in which the Republicans fail to win the White House.
So how is the message of Cantor’s defeat by a tea party upstart, Dave Brat, to be reconciled with the ease with which Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) received a total of 56 percent of the vote against six such challengers?
Immigration played a role in both races, and Cantor and Graham were both accused of advocating amnesty for those who have entered the country illegally.
But while Graham campaigned aggressively for a comprehensive overhaul of the immigration system and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, Cantor sent mixed signals, which left neither side convinced he was with them.
“It’s a matter for candidates of all ideological stripes and flavors being able to arrive at an intellectually honest position that you can articulate and defend and lean into the headwind,” said Ralph Reed, the veteran strategist who now runs the Faith and Freedom Coalition, which seeks to mobilize conservative Christians.
Chocola’s group has spent heavily trying to beat incumbents who stray from its conservative positions on fiscal issues.
Two years ago, he said Graham was at the top of his group’s target list for 2014. But Club for Growth did not end up spending money in the race.
“Candidate quality matters,” Chocola said. “Someone who can talk about their beliefs in an authentic and compelling way. Whether people agree with them or not, they give them a lot of credit” if they make the case for what they believe.
While the immigration battle has been raging for years, there are a host of other flash points within the Republican Party, some of them arising only recently.
The GOP’s national leaders are generally close to business interests, for example, but both libertarians and tea party activists are suspicious of them.
“I will fight to end crony capitalist programs that benefit the rich and powerful,” said Brat, the Randolph-Macon College economics professor who upended the political world Tuesday by beating Cantor.
That was not only a shot against the big Wall Street bailouts that spawned the tea party movement, but also a sign of battles ahead on more esoteric questions, such as whether the federal government should continue to subsidize exporters such as Boeing through the Export-Import Bank.
Also coming to the fore this primary season — and dividing the various Republican factions — are the educational standards known as Common Core that have been adopted by 43 states and the District of Columbia.
Among Common Core’s champions have been a number of current and former Republican governors mulling presidential bids, including New Jersey’s Chris Christie and Florida’s Bush.
Meanwhile, Paul and Cruz have joined efforts to do away with federal funding that supports Common Core. And Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), whom many Republicans now view with suspicion for his role in passing a comprehensive immigration bill in the Senate, has also joined the chorus against Common Core.
And then there is the question of how to balance privacy concerns against protecting national security — an issue that barely registered before the revelations of how extensively the National Security Agency was conducting surveillance. Those disclosures have pitted party traditionalists who favor a muscular national security infrastructure against libertarians, and many tea party groups, who mistrust that kind of framework as another manifestation of big government.
Another new, unpredictable element is the increasing influence of the libertarian movement, say many senior Republicans.
It has infused the party with energy and has genuine appeal for many young people but has also interjected into the dialogue propositions that many traditional Republican activists reject, such as drug legalization.
“The story right now isn’t about the tea party. It’s about the party at the grass-roots level becoming more libertarian,” Pawlenty said.
“There is a loud libertarian faction,” agreed South Carolina strategist Katon Dawson. “Libertarianism has moved into the Republican Party and is trying to hijack it.”
But David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, insisted that social issues aside, there is far more common ground than conflict in the GOP.
“I think the Republican Party is more uniformly anti-big-government than it was before, and that is not the same thing as conservative,” Boaz said. “It is more anti-tax, anti-spending, anti-Washington, which in a sense is where conservatism and libertarian views overlap.”
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who made a private presentation at the Romney gathering, also argued for a narrower focus.
“You can have different points of view on some of these specific issues as long as you stay with the core of the Republican Party, which continues to be the economic issues and the fiscal issues,” Portman said. “It’s what we tend to build our big tent around.”
Philip Rucker contributed to this story from Park City, Utah.