Tea Party vs. Progressive Republicans — Battle for the Soul of the GOP

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles examining what went wrong for the Republican Party in the 2012 presidential election and where the GOP goes from here. Please visit our special section GOP: What Next? to follow the series stories and find related content.

Since Nov. 6, there has been no shortage of opinions as to why challenger Mitt Romney and the Republican Party failed to ouster President Barack Obama.  Pre-election divisions in the Republican Party between moderates and conservatives have only widened since Romney’s defeat and the party’s strategy for the future remains unclear, a source of contention and heated internal & external debate.

Series on Republican PartySpecifically, many now wonder what the sobering 2012 election results means for the right-leaning Tea Party, the champions of personal freedom and smaller government who exploded on the political scene in the 2010 midterm elections.  The re-election of a progressive like Barack Obama would seem to signal the end of the conservative Tea Party, but the movement’s conservative leaders insist that last month’s election results only vindicate the group’s message.

“The Tea Party is not a political party; it’s an informal community of Americans who support a set of fiscally conservative issues,” says FreedomWorks’ Matt Kibbe.  “And when you take a look at the roster of new fiscal conservatives being sent to Congress next year, it’s clear our issues are winning.”

Indeed, although the Tea Party may be focusing the vast majority of its ongoing efforts on local issues, the conservative movement has left an undeniable mark on the national GOP establishment.  The group’s mantra of uncompromising fiscal conservatism and limited government has remained a driving force in shaping Republican platform.

For proof of this, one need look no further than Rep. Paul Ryan’s ascendancy to the No. 2 spot on the GOP ticket.  Once considered a fringe of the congressional conservative coalition, Tea Party-backed fiscal hawks like Ryan are now considered key players at the core of today’s Republican Party.

Critics, of course, will argue that Romney’s defeat in November signals a rebuff of these ideals.  “The 2012 elections have been the undoing of the 2010 Tea Party tsunami that crashed upon Washington,” the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) proclaimed in November.  “The Tea Party is over.”

But the actual election results suggests this declaration is a bit exaggerated and vastly underestimates the conservative Tea Party’s influence in the GOP.

Despite defeats in states like Indiana and Missouri, the Republican Senate caucus gained three new Tea Party-backed members with the addition of Ted Cruz of Texas, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Deb Fischer of Nebraska.  In the House, the Congressional Tea Party Caucus had 60 members before election day.  Of those 60, six did not seek re-election, seven lost their races and 47 were re-elected.  In addition, candidates endorsed by former GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum’s conservative PAC — Missouri’s Ann Wagner and Montana’s Steve Daines — also secured victories for the right.

“The Election Day losers were not the so-called ‘tea partiers,’” Kibbe points out, “they were the candidates embraced by (and some hand-picked by) the Republican establishment who failed to run on the winning message of economic freedom.”  When you boil it down, Kibbe argues, the lack of serious conservative candidates in 2012 meant many principled Republican voters chose to just stay home on Election Day.

This much is true — GOP turnout in 2012 was lower than both the 2008 and 2004 elections.  Turnout this year dropped by 7.9 million voters, falling to 123.6 million from 131.5 million in 2008. This year’s underwhelmed electorate marked the first decline in a presidential election in 16 years. Additionally, only 51.3% of the voting-age population went to the polls.  When you couple low turnout with a few obnoxious and offensive comments on rape from gaffe-prone politicians, it’s hard to say whether the GOP ran with bad policies or just bad candidates.

History also seems to be on the Tea Party’s side. Election results aside, Bloomberg News‘ Albert Hunt predicted the end the GOP establishment and continued rise of the conservative movement after Romney clinched the party’s nomination:

From Washington to the state capitals to the local level, the movement conservatives are in the ascendancy. For years, the Republican base was divided; it’s now dominated by the movement types.

A comparison of Reagan’s last year in office to today illustrates the dramatic change. Then, more than one-third of Senate Republicans were either genuine liberals such as Mark Hatfield, Lowell Weicker and Arlen Specter or moderates such as Bill Cohen, Bob Packwood and Nancy Kassebaum. With the retirement of Olympia Snowe of Maine there’ll be no more than two or three moderate Republicans in the Senate next year.

A quarter-century ago there were dozens of moderate Republicans in the House, members like Chris Shays of Connecticut, Amo Houghton of New York, Bill Gradison of Ohio, Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania and Bill Frenzel of Minnesota. Today there are very few House Republicans who break with conservative orthodoxy.

The changes are equally dramatic at the state and local level. Moderate Republican governors are relics. In Kansas this month, the right wing, led by the state’s conservative governor, drummed a number of the Bob Dole-type centrist Republicans out of the party.

Columbia University political science Professor Brigitte Naco has studied the rise and influence of the Tea Party movement. “Some Democrats say the Tea Party is dead. That’s all baloney,” Naco says. “The fact of the matter is when you look at the basic agenda of the Republican ticket, it’s pretty much what the Tea Party likes.”

But does the GOP’s Old Guard establishment acknowledge or understand this fact?

In recent weeks, House Speaker John Boehner has appeared wobbly on his commitment to the New Guard’s steadfast fiscal conservatism.  Before the election, Boehner downplayed any likelihood of a Republican compromise on the so-called fiscal cliff — the $1.2 trillion in mandatory spending cuts coming at the end of this year.  But after Romney’s defeat, Boehner seemed to pivot, then characterizing Republicans’ re-elected House majority as a mandate to find “common ground” with House Democrats who demand increased spending and higher taxes.

“There will be some kind of war” between the GOP establishment and the Tea Party over the future direction of the party, longtime Republican Party consultant Mike Murphy told the New York Times.  On one side of the divide there are “mathematicians” like Murphy who argue that the GOP must shift its political strategy and policy focus to attract the votes of Hispanics, blacks, younger voters and women; on the other, there are those who believe that basic conservative principles — when articulated appropriately — will ultimately restore unity within the party and attract a wider base of national voters in the future.

Whatever course the party chooses to pursue, it will need to decide quickly as the countdowns to the 2014 midterms and 2016 presidential election have already begun.  “We are in a situation where the Democrats are getting a massive amount of votes for free,” Murphy warns.

“Republicans need not jettison their principles. But they must avoid appearing judgmental and callous on social issues,” esteemed GOP strategist Karl Rove argued in the days following the election.

Tea Party favorite and Florida Senator Marco Rubio agrees: “The party has to continually ask ourselves, What do we represent?  But we have to remain the movement on behalf of upward mobility, the party people identify with their hopes and dreams. People want to have a chance.”

FreedomWorks’ Kibbe predicts the party’s pivotal shift that began in 2010 has put the GOP’s Old Guard on a collision course with a new generation of Republican leaders, including Rubio, Ryan, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, whose steadfast support of small government and limited spending launched him to national fame in a (successful) battle against some of the country’s most ruthless labor unions.

“You are going to see a continuation of the fight between the Old Guard and all of the new blood that has come in since 2010, but I don’t know how dramatic it is going to be,” Kibbe says. “It is getting to point where you can’t reach back and pull another establishment Republican from the queue like we have done with Romney.”

With Republicans holding onto their strong majority in the House of Representatives, we may see a more conservative voting bloc emerge in the 113th Congress than the 112th, and the ongoing debate over the nation’s fiscal crisis may be a good indicator of the divided Republican Party’s trajectory for the next four years.

Will the party establishment steer the party to be more conciliatory when pressured by the White House and Democrats on Capitol Hill, or will the GOP dig in against political concessions that threaten their undermining ideological principles?

“Republicans lost this year because they failed to recognize that economic freedom is trending in America.  The shareholders in America have spoken, and they want senior management to stay out of their homes and to stop spending money we don’t have,” Kibbe wrote days after Obama’s re-election.  “The party that can communicate that message is the party that will win over the American electorate come 2014.”

GOP: What Next?


Related Commentary: How Not to Reform the Republican Party