Members of the House of Representatives left the Capitol Friday as Congress began its summer recess. (Chip Somodevilla/GETTY IMAGES)

The politicians who will seek to lead the Republican Party into 2016 have an unenviable challenge ahead. They must decide whether the path to the White House calls for a less confrontational brand of conservatism or an even sharper right turn — and then persuade others in the party to follow.

Every day seems to bring a fresh example of a divided party looking for direction. On their way out of town for the August recess, congressional Republicans couldn’t agree on spending. They have engaged in a year-long internal debate over immigration. They are divided over tactics designed to thwart implementation of President Obama’s health-care law. National security has become a source of potshots among prospective 2016 candidates.

These divisions can be overstated. But the disagreements do reflect a party still processing the outcomes of two separate elections — an exhilarating victory in 2010 and a demoralizing defeat in 2012. Republicans now must choose whether they will remain largely a state- and Congress-based party or become one positioned to win a national election.

Next year’s midterm elections could bring good news for Republicans. They are likely to hold the House, and at this point they have an opportunity to take control of the Senate, albeit with the slimmest of majorities. They have several embattled governors but are likely to retain the majority of state houses. Yet those victories, if they materialize, could prove to be false positives.

The deep partisan polarization that now governs voting patterns and the alignment of congressional districts gives Republicans a built-in advantage in the battle for control of the House. Democrats won the popular vote for the House last year but still are in the minority. There aren’t many targets of opportunity for either party. Few districts won by Obama in 2012 are in Republican hands, just as the Democrats hold few won by Mitt Romney.

In the Senate, the makeup of next year’s contests gives Republicans another boost. The majority of races are for seats currently held by Democrats. Added to that is the fact that the best chances for Republican gains are in seats held by Democrats in states that clearly tilt Republican in presidential elections.

With Democrats almost certain to recover the seat previously occupied by Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.), the Republicans will need to gain six seats to take control. They are favored to win Democrat-held open seats in Montana, West Virginia and South Dakota. Democratic incumbents from four red states — Louisiana, Arkansas, North Carolina and Alaska — also will face tough reelection campaigns. On paper, the GOP’s goal is achievable, although defeating incumbents is the real challenge.

Republicans also will enjoy a more favorable electorate in 2014 than they did in 2012, if past patterns prevail. Midterm electorates are older and whiter in composition than the electorates in presidential years. For Republicans, 2014 is a time of opportunity. Come 2016, the country’s changing demographics will be working against them. The 2016 electorate is likely to include an even bigger share of non-white voters than that of 2012.

Splits likely to persist

Would success in 2014 patch over the party’s internal fissures? Not necessarily. Can the GOP win the White House with a purer brand of anti-government conservatism? Or did 2012 signal the need to find a way to speak more effectively to struggling middle-class families and minority voters, most significantly Hispanics?

Differences over policy and tactics are almost certain to persist as prospective party leaders and other elected officials search for the right combination of policy, message and strategy. Their task is complicated by the fact that there is no clear guidance coming from rank-and-file Republicans.

The Pew Research Center released a poll last week in which Republicans were asked about their party. On two issues, there is a rough consensus. A sizable majority said they believe that to do better in future presidential elections, the party must address major problems. A majority also said that reconsidering some of the party’s positions should be part of that process.

But 54 percent of Republicans said the party should take a more conservative direction, compared with 40 percent who favored a more moderate path. Tactically, there was no consensus about confrontation vs. compromise. Just more than a third said congressional Republicans have compromised too much with Democrats. A third said they had handled things about right, while about a quarter said their leaders had not compromised enough.

The tea party factor

The Pew survey highlighted the degree to which the party’s most conservative wing continues to play an outsize role in primary elections. Inside the party, there are more people who say they disagree with the tea party or have no strong feelings about the movement than people who identify with the tea party. But among Republicans who always vote in primaries, there are as many tea party supporters as non-supporters.

The two groups disagree about the extent to which the party needs a policy overhaul. A sizable majority of non-tea-party Republicans said the GOP needs to reconsider some of its positions, while a bare majority of those who agree with the tea party said it mainly needs to make a stronger case for its current positions.

On the direction that party leaders should take, more than two in three tea party Republicans said they favor moving in a more conservative direction. Only about four in 10 non-tea-partyers feel that way (and only a quarter of moderates who don’t identify with the tea party). A majority of tea party supporters said the leadership has compromised too much. Only about two in 10 among other Republicans said that.

That means the prospective 2016 candidates will have to appeal to a base that wants more confrontation, less compromise and even more conservative policies in the primary and then turn around and compete in a general election for the votes of people who currently see the party as out of touch or too extreme in some of its policies. As Republicans try to settle their own disagreements, the rest of the country will be watching.

It is entirely possible that after eight years of Obama’s presidency, the country will be ready for a change of parties in 2016. In that case, Republicans could be back in the White House four years from now. But for the GOP, that is only a hope. It is not a strategy.

For previous columns by Dan Balz,
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