For Republicans hoping to win back the White House in 2016, the past few days have been frustrating.
On Tuesday, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, the flag-bearer of the tea party movement among elected officials, dominated headlines with a renunciation of his right to Canadian citizenship, a move that quite clearly signaled his interest in running for president in 2016.
On the same day in Tennessee, Sen. Lamar Alexander penned an op-ed in The Tennessean newspaper to defend himself against tea party attacks, insisting, “One good way to put our country on the right track is to send to Washington a conservative, problem-solving former governor who worked well with others to get the results that put our state on the right track.”
Said Mike Murphy, a prominent Republican campaign consultant: “The party is acting as if the entire world is a GOP primary. That is a very dangerous way to operate. We have massive image problems with the greater electorate, and the silly antics of the purist wing are making our dire problems even worse.”
Further evidence of that came Tuesday in the form of the Senate Conservatives Fund launching radio ads that blast Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina for their comments about the viability of linking defunding President Barack Obama’s health-care law to shutting down the federal government this fall. The group aimed an ad Wednesday at Alexander.
Meanwhile, in Iowa, the co-chairman of the Polk County Republican Party recently resigned, citing the GOP’s move further to the right as the main reason for his decision. “I find it increasingly difficult to defend issues and statements made by Party leaders,” wrote Chad Brown, who had served as co-chairman since March.
In a letter to Republicans released to The Des Moines Register newspaper this week, Brown, 34, expressed dissatisfaction with all levels of the GOP.
“I’m disappointed with the Republican Party at the National level. I’m disappointed with the Republican Party at the Statewide level. I’m disappointed with the Republican Party at the Countywide level,” he wrote.
Finally, Weld County (Colorado) received approval this week to secede from the rest of the state, a move that was prompted by the Democratic-controlled legislature’s action on guns and oil exploration.
Taken one by one, none of the above developments is a big deal. Taken together, they illustrate that the Republican Party is on the verge of splitting in two. To be clear, that split won’t happen. The two major parties are the two major parties for a reason. Disputes work themselves out. The pendulum swings.
But for now, Republicans are caught in the middle of an increasingly public battle between establishment and, for lack of a better term, tea party wings that is — more than anything Democrats have done — complicating the GOP’s path back to power in 2016.
“These groups, once relegated to the fringe, were organized and have taken over as many mainstreamers took a vacation or left altogether,” former congressman Tom Davis of Virginia explained, referring to the growth in the tea party. He added that they “will either learn coalition politics and be productive or they will get crushed ala Barry Goldwater and George McGovern.”
The prospect of facing a Goldwater-like election — the senator from Arizona won only 36 percent of the popular vote in the 1964 presidential election — in 2016 is more real than it has been in quite some time, close observers of the GOP say.
Why? The losses of John McCain and Mitt Romney, both establishment picks viewed with semi-open derision by the party’s conservative wing, in 2008 and 2012 has convinced the base that the only way to win is to stick to core principles and not move to the middle.
It’s a sentiment reflected in recent Pew Research Center polling data that show that a majority of Republican and GOP-leaning independent voters would like to see party leaders be more conservative. On the contentious issues of same-sex marriage and abortion, respondents were evenly split over whether the Republican Party’s position is too conservative or not conservative enough.
The rapid rise of Cruz is more evidence of the belief that the party should be more conservative. And make no mistake — if Cruz runs, he will be in the top tier or just outside of the top tier of candidates.
What Republicans are going through is not unique. Democrats faced a similar existential reckoning in the late 1980s and early 1990s before Bill Clinton led them out of a political wilderness.
Of course, Democrats spent 12 years out of the White House before Clinton could rise. Given how badly split Republicans are at the moment, there are worries within the GOP that they might have to wait a similar amount of time before the intraparty squabble resolves itself and they can move forward.