Tea Party and the Right

The GOP's Vicious Internal War: Republican Establishment Trying To Exile Tea Partiers And Extremists

The Republican civil war heats up.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock, Copyright Elnur

The Republican Party is seeing some of the nastiest intra-party fights since the 2012 presidential primaries, as corporate lobbyists and national party leaders battle upstart Tea Partiers and loudmouth Washington ideologues over what defines the party now and who will be this year’s candidates for Congress.

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The most recent example occurred this week, as Speaker of the House John Boehner brought a bill to the floor raising the federal debt into 2015—with no spending cuts attached—and it passed with only 28 Republicans voting yes. As Boehner’s intentions became known, the GOP’s big schism—pitting party leaders and big business against grassroots Tea Partiers and longtime anti-debt, anti-tax crusaders erupted. The hard-core right-wingers issued threats to Republicans if they voted for it. After it passed, they launched calls for Boehner’s ouster.

“We’re being play like fools,” blared RedState.com Daniel Horowitz’s column. “A complete capitulation,” said Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, which, like fellow GOP extremist groups, FreedomWorks, ForAmerica, Senate Conservatives Fund, are circulating petitions to replace the Speaker.

The dueling in Republican ranks isn’t confined to Washington, where just last week Tea Partiers and right-wingers joined forces and convinced Boehner not to bring a major Senate-passed immigration bill to the floor for a vote, after another rounds of threats to House Republicans and to unseat him.

It’s also unfolding in the run-up to 2014’s Republican primaries, where the GOP’s national party establishment has told at least five House and Senate candidates to step aside in Virginia, West Virginia, Alaska, South Dakota and Idaho. These include Virginia State Sen. Richard Black, who used plastic fetuses as debate props and tried to block unmarried, gay and lesbian couples from getting state home loans. It includes ex-West Virginia legislator Pat McGeehan, who says he holds the state record for voting no. It includes South Dakota legislator Stace Nelson, who was banned from its statehouse GOP caucus after fighting with other Republicans he accused of being too moderate. And it includes Alaska’s Joe Miller, who Sarah Palin backed in 2010, but lost to Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

Whether this fight is a spiraling identity crisis for a disintegrating national party or GOP leaders are finally relegating backbench status to Tea Partiers and other purists is an open question. The answer is not clear-cut, because even though Washington’s Republican establishment has a lot of money, power and influence, they are not the only GOP faction with money and weight to throw around.

The GOP has always had factions. Since the ‘80s, business conservatives have had to live with the religious right. That uneasy status quo was shaken up after 2010’s Tea Party wave, which elevated white, wealthier and older Republicans who are anti-regulation, anti-spending, anti-tax and anti-compromise. The Tea Party wave revived other longtime scolds, such as Brent Bozell, whose group, ForAmerica, left 5,500 voicemails a week ago saying that voting for the Senate-passed immigration reform bill was “turncoat” and would have consequences.

The problems facing GOP leaders who are tired of their extremists are not about to go away. That’s because the political minor leagues—state Legislatures—are even more partisan and one-sided than Congress. The 2010 election brought a historic number of state victories for Republicans, who soon redrew legislative lines to ensure one-party rule for the rest of the decade. Single-party rule has reshaped state laws on gay marriage, guns, reproductive rights and unions.

This is the landscape sent the most recalcitrant Republicans to Congress, including the faction that forced the government shutdown in October. That episode led the national GOP leadership and its corporate sponsors to try to put the extremist genie back in the bottle by limiting its impact in 2014 elections. But as the Supreme Court has loosened campaign finance rules in recent years, a rash of new GOP operatives—inside and outside of Washington circles—has been raising and spending millions on their agenda.

The GOP’s establishment wing includes the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Karl Rove’s Crossroads and its affiliated groups—which spent $300 million to try to defeat President Obama and retake the Senate in 2012, and the congressional campaign committees that are official party operations. On the outside are Tea Party Patriots and other groups—some based in Washington such as Heritage Action, the Senate Conservatives Fund—and others outside the beltway in the network created by libertarian billionaires David and Charles Koch.

Every faction is trying to play hardball. According to The New York Times, potential donors to FreedomWorks, a Koch-backed group supporting GOP challengers across the country, were told by GOP officials that they would lose “access to Republican leadership” if they gave money to the group. Party officials have told political consultants that they would lose contracts if they worked on Tea Party and insurgent campaigns this year, TalkingPointsMemo.com reports.   

But the upstarts don’t have to listen because they have their base. In 2013, the four groups that attacked Republican officeholders as moderate and yielding to Democrats on spending issues—FreedomWorks, Club for Growth Action Fund, Senate Conservative Fund, and the Tea Party Patriots—raised a total of $20 million, according to recent Federal Election Commission reports.

In contrast, in 2013 Rove’s Crossroads and its PAC, Republican Congressional Leadership Fund, and Young Guns Action Fund only raised $7.7 million. But the GOP establishment’s top business ally, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said it planned to spend $50 million in this year’s GOP primaries and in fall elections. And as of early February, the Koch’s Americans For Prosperity spent more than $23 million on political ads attacking Democrats and Obamacare—which more than makes up for the Republican establishment’s fundraising lapse.     

The intra-party battle lines go beyond campaign cash. It includes who has the best information about likely GOP voters, which, cannot be underestimated in a midterm election—where voter turnout is always low. There are two competing operations to create a vast database of tens of millions of voter profiles for 2014’s messaging. The Republican National Committee hired Data Trust, a firm founded by an ex-Facebook engineer, Andrew Barkett. He told The New York Times that he’s trying to add home values and property tax bills to more voter file data for targeted messaging. The RNC recently announced that it was expanding that project, which it has renamed Para Bellum Labs—Latin for “prepare for war.”

Meanwhile, outside the official Republican barricades is a competing four-year-old effort bankrolled by the Kochs. Their massive voter database project is called Themis and has a sister firm, i360, that works for the “pro-free-market political and advocacy community.” Another long-established Koch group, Americans For Prosperity, has been a big sponsor of the Tea Party. When House Republicans held a retreat in late January, Tea Party Patriots “set in motion 900,000 automatic phone calls in 90 Republican House districts” opposing immigration reform, the Times reported, citing an operation that looks like Themis’ work.

Needless to say, that computer-driven deluge, as well as several thousand calls to the Capitol from irate right-wingers, gave Boehner an excuse to kill a bill that granted legal status and eventual citizenship to 11 million Latinos. Whether the GOP wanted to add millions of non-whites to America’s voter rolls is probably closer to the real reason that Boehner pulled the bill.  

The latest wave of intra-party warfare is not likely to end before November, when the results may be surprising. Immigration reformers are very upset and may tell people to support Democrats in response—instead of sitting out the midterms. If the GOP establishment beats back the insurgents’ primary challenges, that part of their base might stay home to protest insufficiently pure candidates.

Meanwhile, the biggest winner is likely to be the Kochs. Their advertising blitz attacking Democrats and Obamacare puts the party establishment in their debt. And they are also backing Tea Partiers and other insurgents, meaning no matter who wins in 2014, they will gain power and influence in GOP circles.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).