In his kiss-and-tell book about the second Bush administration, former White House speechwriter Matthew Latimer recounts drafting a presidential address to the largest gathering of conservative activists in the country. The president wasn’t happy with the frequent references to the conservative movement in the text. “Let me tell you something,” George W. Bush is quoted as saying. “I whupped Gary Bauer’s ass in 2000. So take out all this movement stuff. There is no movement.”
Even if the tale is apocryphal, it captures the often abusive relationship between the conservative movement and the Republican Party. Millions of self-described conservatives manned the trenches for George W. Bush and the GOP. By the end of his presidency, many of them felt whupped by their own party. Now some of them are fighting back.
Case in point is the Not One Penny to the National Republican Senatorial Committee campaign, a boycott launched by conservatives who believed the NRSC — an official party structure — was systematically favoring moderate candidates in GOP primaries. Whenever possible, conservatives feared, the national party was trying to coronate the moderates and avoid competitive primaries altogether.
The Not One Penny crusaders first took to the blogosphere and social networking websites after the NRSC decided to weigh into the Florida Senate race on behalf of Gov. Charlie Crist, who was running to succeed retiring Republican Sen. Mel Martinez. But a former state house speaker, Marco Rubio, was also a candidate. Both in Florida and across the country, many activists considered Rubio the better conservative. They resented what they saw as meddling by Sen. John Cornyn, the Texas Republican who chairs the NRSC.
At the time the NRSC began leaning toward Crist, Cornyn’s logic looked solid. Not only did polls show Crist with a commanding lead over Rubio (Mason-Dixon put Crist ahead 53 percent to 18 percent), but the Florida governor had a huge cash advantage and was up by as much as 34 points in head-to-head match-ups with likely Democratic candidates. Crist wouldn’t need much financial help from the national party. He would be a heavy favorite against almost any Democrat in November. And he even appeared to be the choice of Florida Republicans. So why not support him?
But early polls reflect little more than name recognition and are often subject to change. Exposed to a competitive campaign, Floridians who vote in the GOP primary might make a different decision. “When 2008 dawned the Democratic presidential nomination was Hillary Clinton’s to lose,” Larry Thornberry wrote on the TAS website. “But no one expected her to.” We all remember how that turned out.
Similarly, the Florida Republican primary no longer looks like a done deal for Charlie Crist. A late January Quinnipiac poll showed Rubio leading 47 percent to 44 percent, within the margin of error but still a huge turnaround from those early surveys predicting a Crist cakewalk. The same poll showed Rubio ahead of the major Democratic candidates in the general election, undermining any “electability” argument against the conservative’s candidacy.
This dramatic polling turnaround suggested the NRSC was premature in picking a horse in the Florida race. But to many conservative activists, it was also part of a pattern of official party support for moderates and hostility to conservatives. The Not One Penny group’s battle cry: “First they supported Chafee. Then they supported Specter. Now they support Crist.” This refers to the NRSC’s backing of liberal Republican Sens. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania against conservative primary challengers. Neither man is a Republican any longer; Specter’s party switch ushered in a (short-lived) filibuster-proof Democratic majority in the Senate. The folks at home may have noticed that Specter’s shifting allegiances also nearly led to a federal government takeover of the American health care system.
The NRSC’s mission is not to further conservative principles. Rather, it is to elect as many Republican senators as it can at the lowest possible cost. If this means supporting a moderate or liberal Republican over a lesser-known conservative, then this is precisely what the NRSC can be expected to do. This is true of virtually every official arm of the national GOP: all other things being equal, candidates with lots of money and impressive early poll numbers are generally going to be preferred over candidates without these qualifying attributes. Whether a candidate agrees with the Republican platform or is to the left of Che Guevara is much lower on the party’s list of priorities.
Conservatives are becoming increasingly aware of the fact that furthering their principles will sometimes actually require conflict with official party organs. Heated intraparty fights between moderates and conservatives are nothing new, predating even the battles between Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller. Neither is there anything new about the sense that party leaders stack the deck against conservatives. The right denounced the deal-making that denied Robert Taft the Republican presidential nomination, handing it instead to the Eastern establishment choices Tom Dewey and Dwight Eisenhower.
WHAT IS NEW IS THE GROWING sense among conservatives that explicit or even implicit support from the Republican establishment is itself evidence of a candidate’s moderation. Erick Erickson of the activist-centered conservative blog RedState.com has repeatedly highlighted NRSC involvement in Republican primary campaigns, since the committee often eschews direct endorsements and instead collaborates with candidates on fundraising. Erickson denounced the party’s favored candidates as moderates.
“I realize we’re playing adolescent word games with the NRSC when it comes to Carly Fiorina,” Erickson wrote in December. “Just last week, John Cornyn said the NRSC would not be endorsing anyone, including Carly Fiorina. Reconciling that with the fact that the NRSC is entering into a joint fundraising venture with Fiorina is impossible.” The post’s subhead read, “Fiorina, Ayotte, and Grayson become establishment candidates. That means they must all three be beaten.” Carly Fiorina (CA), Kelly Ayotte (NH), and Trey Grayson (KY) are all preferred by party leaders though they face credible primary opponents.
Even before the anger at the NRSC reached full boil, conservatives were coping by building their own competing structures inside and outside the party to promote their own favored candidates. Sen. Jim DeMint, the South Carolina conservative who chairs the Senate Republican Steering Committee, set up the Senate Conservatives Fund to raise money for conservative GOP candidates. In some races, this mission has put it in direction competition with the national party. DeMint’s group has gone against the NRSC grain by endorsing Rubio in Florida and Chuck DeVore in California. Possible endorsements of Rand Paul in Kentucky and Ovide Lamontagne in New Hampshire could follow.
Asked about this apparent conflict after weighing into the California GOP primary, DeMint told the Hill he had a somewhat different strategy than the NRSC. “John Cornyn has picked a candidate he thinks can win and I picked one that I believe can not only win the primary but the general [election] and when he gets here, he’s going to help us turn this Congress around,” DeMint said last year. The Senate Conservatives Fund has also endorsed two other candidates, Michael Williams in Texas and Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania. But the available resources won’t be equal: The Conservatives Fund raised $1.2 million through last November, compared to the NRSC’s imposing $37 million.
Some conservative groups operate outside the party structure. The Club for Growth has been a bête noire of moderate Republicans since 1999. Despite its focus on fiscal policy — tax cuts, spending restraint, free trade — the Club’s efforts have pulled Republicans to the right on issues across the board. But it does not limit its endorsements to Republicans, has gotten involved in Democratic primaries, and has even been criticized for pushing its policy agenda to the detriment of GOP electoral interests. After the 2006 and 2008 elections, even some conservatives blamed the Club for costing Republicans a handful of congressional seats by helping weaker but ideologically congenial candidates win their primaries.
THE BIGGEST WAVE of conservative activism in the country, the much-heralded Tea Party movement, is being propelled by groups that bill themselves as independent from both parties (polls show it to be more popular than either party). These activists are overtly hostile to the Republican establishment and some of them — particularly the Ron Paul supporters — even oppose much of the Bush-era GOP agenda. This latter, more libertarian, group isn’t just against the parts of that agenda that were never popular with conservatives to begin with, like amnesty for illegal immigrants or excessive federal spending, but the conduct of the war on terror. Still other Tea Partiers are passionately hawkish.
In Tennessee’s eighth congressional district, one Tea Party-aligned candidate decided he no longer wanted to be affiliated with the GOP at all. “As of today, I am no longer going to run for the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican,” Donn Janes told a crowd of 300 West Tennessee Tea Party activists. “We need to change the way we elect our representatives. We continue to rely on the two-party system to provide us with different choices; but thanks to this corrupt system, there is little difference between the two of them.”
Janes instead announced he would run as an independent, describing the two major parties in language reminiscent of the “two wings of the same bird of prey” speech with which Pat Buchanan bolted the GOP in 1999. “Both parties voted to increase the size of our government; both parties voted to trade your freedoms for security; and both parties are responsible for our monstrous debt, our failing economy and the exporting of our jobs overseas,” Janes continued.
Ross Perot meets Ron Paul. But weeks later in Ohio’s ninth congressional district, a Tea Party candidate decided to go the opposite route by ending his independent campaign and entering the Republican primary. “I am going to run my campaign as an independent Republican candidate,” businessman Chris Iott told the Toledo Blade. “This will give voters a choice of the one person they want to challenge the incumbent in November.”
Writing in the New Republic, Democratic strategist Ed Kilgore downplayed the Tea Party movement’s independence from the GOP. “But the fact remains that [Tea Party] candidates are almost invariably self-identified Republicans, campaigning on traditional conservative Republican themes, and cooperating with Republican politicians tactically and strategically on major issues,” he argued. “There is zero visible outreach to Democrats of any stripe.” But there has been some willingness to support independents and third parties.
THE MOST VISIBLE conservative rebellion against the Republican Party came in New York’s 23rd congressional district, where the right rallied to Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman over liberal Republican nominee Dede Scozzafava. This resulted in Scozzafava withdrawing from the race and endorsing the Democratic candidate, Bill Owens. Owens narrowly won, in large part due to Scozzafava’s remaining on the ballot to claim 6 percent of the vote. But the argument that normally deters conservatives from voting third-party — You’re effectively voting for a Democrat! — had no effect in NY-23. Hoffman nearly won the seat.
But NY-23 may be an outlier for all sorts of reasons. Scozzafava was a particularly egregious Republican candidate, unreliable on the handful of issues — from health care to card check — where the GOP minority actually has some influence. She was chosen by party bosses rather than by primary. National conservative groups like the Club for Growth uncharacteristically backed Hoffman over the GOP. Even potential Republican presidential candidates, like Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, endorsed against Scozzafava, making Hoffman effectively a Republican candidate.
What’s more is that New York has a unique system where candidates can run on the ballot lines of multiple political parties. The Conservatives and the Republicans often cross-nominate the same candidate: Republican John McHugh, who was vacating the House seat to work for Barack Obama and had a barely right-of-center congressional voting record, had been considered sufficiently conservative to win the Conservative ballot line in past election cycles. And third-party Conservative wins are not unprecedented in New York: James Buckley, the brother of National Review’s founder, won a Senate seat in this manner back in 1970.
More representative might be the Tea Party movement’s enthusiastic and nearly unqualified support for Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts. Brown’s election to the Senate seat once held by liberal Democratic titan Ted Kennedy was a huge success for conservatives. It ended the Democrats’ filibuster-proof Senate majority and at least complicated a federal government take-over of the health care system if it didn’t kill it outright. Liberals and conservatives alike got the message: If candidates like Scott Brown can make it there, they can make it anywhere.
Nevertheless, Scott Brown is a fairly moderate Republican by national standards. He supports Roe v. Wade. He voted for Massachusetts’ universal health care law, virtually indistinguishable from the Senate health bill he campaigned against except on federalist grounds. And he is going to be under great political pressure to break with conservatives on at least one major issue before running for a full term in just two years. Brown is more conservative than Edward Brooke, the last Republican elected to the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts. But is he more conservative than, say, John McCain?
American Conservative senior editor Daniel McCarthy reacted by grousing that he “wonders if he’s supposed to be thrilled at the election of another pro-abortion, pro-war, big-spending, civil-liberties smashing, Romneycare Republican. Whoopee!” But it didn’t take Brown long to begin making noises unsettling even to more conventional movement types: he retained some Kennedy staffers and told the Boston Globe he put the Senate Republican leadership on notice “I’m going to vote how I want to vote.” (In case you were wondering how the leaders took it, Brown says, “They were cool.”)
IN A TWO-PARTY SYSTEM, conservatives don’t have many other options besides the Republican Party. The early conservative movement clustered around National Review was as hostile to Eisenhower-era “Modern Republicans” as it was to the left. But the GOP nevertheless proved the only suitable vehicle for Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.
Similarly, in today’s political climate, electing Republicans is no guarantee of conservative governance. But the Democratic supermajorities empowering liberalism can only be reduced by electing Republicans. Moving from blocking liberal policies to advancing conservative ones will likely require the election of Republicans. The Blue Dog Democrats have proved almost entirely useless in opposing their party leadership’s liberal agenda, except when their political lives are placed at risk — which itself requires a credible threat of being replaced by Republicans.
It remains to be seen whether reinvigorated conservative activists can whip the Republican Party into shape or continue feeling whupped by it. Even with Obama in the White House and the Democrats in control of Congress, many conservatives are no longer reassured simply the presence of an “R” next to a politician’s name. But even troubled relationships tend to endure when both parties have nowhere else to turn.