Tuesday, May 13, 2014

GOP, the Tea Party and the cage match to come

THE TEA Party movement has been dying by degrees  for years now. Its long defiance of the horticulture of politics — any movement that’s an inch deep and half a mile wide doesn’t really have the deep roots it needs to grow very far — is finally catching up to it.

If what just happened in North Carolina is a sign of what’s to come, the more traditional elements of the Republican Party that spawned the noisy, combative distillation of its most vituperative conservative adherents are ready to put the Tea Party movement behind it, and get on with the business of politics. Starting with the business of winning.

Thom Tillis, the speaker of the North Carolina House, won his Republican Senate primary on May 6 with 45.7 percent of the vote, kicking to the curb his weak challengers: Libertarian/Tea Party darling Greg Brannon (27 percent) and Charlotte pastor Mark Harris (17 percent).

Tillis was the beneficiary of the open checkbooks of stalwarts such as American Crossroads (the ATM directed by turdblossom generalissimo Karl Rove) and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He’ll face down Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan as part of the GOP’s wider strategy to regain control of the United States Senate in November.

Now the stage shifts to primary contests in Kentucky and Georgia on May 20 — a week from today. The outcome of those races could determine whether the North Carolina vote represents a trend for the Republicans, or just more of the philosophical gridlock that’s defined the GOP for the last five years.

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One thing’s unmistakable: Republicans want a winner. If North Carolina’s rejection of Brannon is a bellwether for anything, it’s a signal that Republican patience for heretic outliers — Todd Akin in Missouri, Sharon Engle in Nevada, Ken Buck in Colorado, Christine O’Donnell in Delaware — has worn thin.

Republicans want a winner. That may be what lies behind a series of claims and counterclaims made by Mark Fisher, Tea Party candidate for governor in Massachusetts, and the state Republican Party. On Thursday Fisher claimed that Mass GOP offered him $1 million to drop a lawsuit seeking to let Harris force his way onto the September primary ballot — basically, to quit his own campaign.

Quite understandably, Mass GOP denies this, claiming that it was Fisher who demanded $1 million to drop his suit and name from the party ballot. The Boston Globe and WGBH reported on this last week.

Whatever really happened will all come out in the wash, but you can envision a scenario in which Mass GOP, reading the national tea leaves — and the dwindling national support for Tea Party candidates — decided that cutting Harris out of the herd now would increase the chances of a mainstream Republican to win the September primary, without having Tea Party votes siphoned away from that candidate. With what’s at stake, Mass GOP may have privately reasoned, $1 million was cheap at twice the price.

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THERE’S EVIDENCE that something approaching pragmatism has lifted the scales from the eyes of Republican voters. Politico counted them up state by state, the mainstream Republicans who prevailed in various races.

Rep. Renee Ellmers in North Carolina’s 2nd Congressional District beat back a challenge by a conservative radio host. In the North Carolina 7th, Former state Sen. David Rouzer won the GOP primary with the backing of the U.S. Chamber. And in the Ohio 14th, GOP Rep. David Joyce stopped Rep. Matt Lynch, who was supported by the libertarian nonprofit FreedomWorks.

The internal split to be negotiated by Republicans in the coming months is all boiled down in what Ashley Van Wormer, of Cary, N.C., told the News & Observer last week. “We need some change in North Carolina,” said Van Wormer, a Tillis supporter, who called for “conservative values but not too far conservative. We need to elect somebody that can win.”

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But Tillis’ victory may nothing more than “something approaching pragmatism.” The ultimate Republican strategy may be more sleight of hand. After he won, Tillis made all the right noises, promising to “work across party lines to pass an agenda focused on generating growth and opportunities for middle-class families and small businesses.”

We won’t know until the campaign ends, but it may be that the midterm-mode GOP is working to assume the mantle of political centrism without actually moving anywhere near the center. What veteran political analyst Steve Schmidt called “the resurgence of pragmatism” in conservative circles could be nothing more than the resurgence of the appearance of pragmatism — old policy wine in different skins.

That’s the danger for those Republican candidates who survive the primary season and make it into the general. In North Carolina, that means appealing to the state’s general electorate without alienating the conservative base. Not so long ago, that wouldn’t have been a challenge, never mind a problem; North Carolina more reliably trended conservative. These days? Not so much.

Thomas Mills, a Democratic strategist, told The News & Observer that “right now I still think Hagan has a little bit of an edge.” But “it would be hard to put money on either case because we are a swing state. We are evenly divided.”

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AND WITH the likely impact on black and minority voters of the state’s voter ID law, signed by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, Republican candidates will have their work cut out for them reaching out to the state’s general population while defending the status quo of doing everything they can to undermine the voting rights of many of the same voters.

Hopes for Republican success this November are based, as they often seem to be, on assertion of a negative value — not so much on who votes as on who doesn’t. At the heart of every forecast of Republican victory in November is the implicit assumption that Democrats won’t show up at the polls. It’s been a cherished Republican article of faith for years.

A lot like the one that said Florida would never vote for a Democrat for the presidency (disproven by Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012). Or the one that said that rust-belt Ohio’s electoral votes would stay in Republican hands indefinitely (also disproven in 2008 and 2012).

Or the one that determined Colorado would continue its reliable, decades-long pattern of voting for Republicans in the presidential (disproven by that Obama fellow again in 2008 and 2012).

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But the reliance of conservatives on that no-show article of faith doesn’t end the GOP’s existential cage match between traditional Republicans and their Tea Party counterparts. Republicans’ allegiance to a sunny November scenario obscures a dilemma that’s dead ahead. First, before anything else, GOP candidates have to get through the primaries, and with the Tea Party fighting for relevance like never before, that could make for a bloody primary season.

If GOP candidates get through the primary season with their Pantone-red conservative bona fides intact, what’s their appeal to the broader, more diverse general electorate? And if they make the pivot toward centrism they need to make to win a general election, what’s their appeal to the conservative base?

And what if Democrats show up after all? The very idea that turnout could be considered a wild-card factor in a midterm election is sadly astonishing, true enough. But with Republican thought leaders already predicting a blowout, the smart money may be setting itself up for embarrassment. Starting as soon as this November.

Image credits: Tillis: Diedra Laird/Charlotte Observer. Akin: Orlin Wagner/Associated Press. Ellmers: Ellmers for Congress.

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