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Are Republicans Already Blowing the Next Election?

Are Republicans already ignoring the lessons of the presidential election? Last Monday, Republican Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito announced plans to run in 2014 for the West Virginia Senate seat held by Jay Rockefeller. In response, former Rep. Chris Chocola, the president of the Club for Growth, declared the Club’s opposition to Moore’s candidacy. “Congresswoman Capito has a long record of support of bailouts, pork, and bigger government,” he said.

Chocola’s statement was overshadowed by the debate over what to do about the “fiscal cliff.” But it probably says more about the future direction of the Republican Party than House Speaker John Boehner’s daily animadversions on taxes and spending; and what it says is not very good--at least for those Republicans to want to revive their party’s fortunes after this November’s election. It also has some bearing on the fiscal-cliff negotiations.

There is no clear center of power in Republican Party (or, for that matter, the Democratic Party). Primaries are determined by a fairly narrow field of voters – only 15 percent of registered voters, for example, participated this year in Indiana’s hotly contested Republican Senate primary. Candidates depend not only on their personal and political appeal, but also on grassroots support and, of course, money.

That’s where organizations like the Club for Growth come in. Unlike the Republican National Committee or the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Club’s objective is not simply to elect Republicans, but to elect what Chocola calls “true champions of economic freedom.” To do that, the Club is willing to intervene in Republican primaries, even against incumbents. And in the wake of Citizens United, it is able to raise and spend unlimited funds to do so.  

A politician’s worse fear is being “primaried.” The Club’s early support can inspire a primary challenger. Its opposition – or merely the possibility of its opposition -- can frighten an incumbent or challenger into taking a more conservative stance. When the Club announces that it is putting a vote on its annual “scorecard” of who is truly conservative, Republicans have been known to change their position overnight, as happened last year with a China currency bill that the Club opposed. Last August, all seven Senators that the Club had backed in 2010 followed the Club’s lead and opposed the much-needed debt ceiling agreement.

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In the early 2000s, the Club largely acted alone in primaries, but recently, it has become part of an informal network of hyper-conservative PACs, political groups, talk show hosts and bloggers that have sought to oust Republicans who they believe are not true conservatives. This network includes Senator Jim DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund,  FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity, the Madison Project, various local and national Tea Party organizations,  Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Erick Erickson’s RedState.

In the beginning, this network targeted liberal Republicans like New Jersey congresswoman Marge Roukema, but it now extends to politicians like Lugar, Capito, Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss and even House Speaker Boehner, who by any ordinary definition would be considered conservative. The Club and its allies see themselves as “insurgents” against a Republican “establishment” that falsely claims to be conservative. “What really matters,” Chocola says, “is finding [candidates] who are not part of the establishment.”

In reaction to the November results, the Republican intelligentsia in Washington and New York has called for the party to move to the center on immigration, social issues, and economics in order to broaden its base. Republicans, Ramesh Ponnuru wrote in National Review, have to make themselves “the party of middle-class economic interests.” “It won’t kill the country if we raise taxes on millionaires a little bit,” Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol opined.  

But the Club and its network blame the Republicans’ and Romney’s defeat on their not being conservative enough. “The first lesson” of Romney’s defeat, Judson Phillips of Tea Party Nation wrote, “is no more moderate Republican candidates.” The reason Romney lost, RedState’s Erickson wrote, is that he “tried to blur the lines with Barack Obama.” While ignoring Richard Mourdock’s defeat in Indiana, Chocola cites the Senate victories of Ted Cruz in Texas and Jeff Flake in Arizona as evidence that when Republicans take Club positions rather than “electable” moderates, they will win.

The Club and its network have yet to unveil their overall strategy for 2014, but some of its members groups have already threatened to back primary challenges to Chambliss and South Carolinian Lindsay Graham.  And the threats have had some effect. Chambliss incurred the network’s wrath last summer for attempting to work out a bipartisan compromise on the debt ceiling. After the election, he annoyed them by downplaying his commitment to the pledge, circulated by Grover Norquist, not to raise taxes. “I care more about my country than I do about a 20-year-old pledge.” But by this week, he had tweeted that he is “not in favor of tax increases.” Chambliss’s decision was not the result of pressure from Norquist, but of the looming threat of a primary challenge from the right.

If the Club and its network remain active for 2014 and 2016 elections, they will almost certainly make it more difficult for the Republicans to retake the Senate and to win back the Presidency. That has been true in the past. The Club and Tea Party groups successfully backed far-rightist Sharron Angle in the 2010 Republican Senate primary against an “establishment” conservative who might have beaten Harry Reid. This year, they put their money on Mourdock in Indiana. And if the Club and DeMint’s opposition to Capito is any indication, they will do similar damage to the Republican cause in 2014.

West Virginia is not Arizona. It has gone Republican in the last four presidential elections, because, as my colleague Nate Cohn has noted, voters there see the national Democrats as hostile to coal and guns. But pro-gun, pro-coal Democratic politicians in West Virginia continue to hold most of the state offices and both Senate seats. That’s because West Virginia’s white working class voters, like those in neighboring Pennsylvania and Ohio, still see the Democrats as the party of the New Deal safety net and spending on roads and bridges and schools.  

Capito, who won her seat in 2000, and is the daughter of former Governor and moderate Republican Arch Moore, understands the state’s electorate. She backed the expansion of Children’s Health Insurance Program, the extension of unemployment benefits, and infrastructure spending --votes that Chocola cites as reasons to oppose her. She is also an excellent campaigner. She could conceivably defeat Rockefeller and, if he were to retire, another Democratic opponent. But a Republican who espoused the kind of anti-government policies favored by the Club and its network and was able to defeat Capito in a sparsely attended Republican primary – 7 percent of the state’s registered voters went to the polls in the last contested Republican senate primary -- would be likely to lose to almost any competent Democrat.

Republicans who worry most about winning a Senate majority are happy with Moore’s candidacy. Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, the new chairman of the NRSC, leapt to her defense after the Club and DeMint attacked her. But the Club and DeMint are oblivious to the peculiar mix of liberalism and conservatism that characterizes many voters in states like West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. At the bottom, Chocola, DeMint, and the Tea Party activists don’t believe that Republican candidates have to move to the center on economic and social issues. They see America neatly divided between a “socialist” far left and a “conservative” far right between which the twain shall never meet. “I think the whole concept of compromise and bipartisanship is silly,” Chocola says.  

Their view echoes that of leftwing Democrats of the 1980s that “there is nothing in the center of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos.” That piece of wisdom led to repeated Democratic defeats; and it will do likewise for the Republicans. The network’s view also makes continuing Congressional gridlock over taxes and spending likely. And that could affect more than the Republican Party. If Congress can’t avert the fiscal cliff, or continues to battle over the debt limit, that will endanger America’s fragile recovery from the Great Recession.