By David Ignatius
WASHINGTON — Many Republicans have been muttering over the last few weeks of political craziness that the tea party’s hold on the GOP must be broken to protect their party’s future health — not to mention, the country’s. So I’ve been asking Republicans what a movement to break the extremists’ power would actually look like.
The answers convince me that a grass-roots movement to rebuild the GOP as a governing party is possible, but only if it’s a disciplined, well-financed effort that mobilizes voters in the Republican-leaning districts where the tea party is strong.
The key factor, is whether major business groups such as the Chamber of Commerce are on board. “The business community has been AWOL,” argues Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar with the American Enterprise Institute. He says the traditional business groups such as the chamber have ceded the ground to more right-wing groups such as the Club for Growth and Heritage Action.
The numbers show why pro-business Republicans should be worried. The New York Times summarized a study by Macroeconomic Advisers that estimated the cost of this month’s shutdown at $12 billion in lost output; other estimates are double that. Over the past year, says Macroeconomic Advisers, uncertainty caused by budget showdowns has cost the nation $150 billion in GDP and 900,000 jobs.
A backlash is clearly building. Conservative commentator Rod Dreher wrote in The American Conservative about “the tragedy of tea-party Republicans destroying their credibility with reckless brinksmanship.” David Frum, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, urged the GOP to expel tea-party members and argued, “Right now, tea-party extremism contaminates the whole Republican brand.”
GOP strategists said the ingredients for revival include: good candidates in key districts; a national nest egg of perhaps $200 million to $300 million; and a “galvanizing” national political leader, such as Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey or former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida. Put these three factors together in the 2014 Republican primaries and you could see some surprising results, they argue.
Several strategists offered a similar breakdown of the House’s 232 GOP members: They say the key to change is challenging the 40 hard-core extremists and perhaps 40 more who sympathize with them, meanwhile protecting the roughly 100 conservative House Republicans who are wary of the tea party but don’t want to take on the Club for Growth and Heritage Action.
Strategists caution that primary challenges won’t work without good local candidates who are well funded. Otherwise, “the GOP is going over Niagara Falls,” says one prominent adviser to several Republican presidents.
An example of how the grass-roots process could work is the Grand Rapids, Mich., district of Rep. Justin Amash, a tea-party activist elected in 2010. As explained by The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker, Amash is facing a primary challenge from Brian Ellis, a local business leader who sits on the school board and epitomizes the GOP mainstream. Similar primary challenges are brewing against tea-party Republicans in Alabama and Idaho.
What are the political mechanics of rolling back tea-party power? For that, I turned to Plouffe, the Democratic master strategist who engineered President Obama’s 2008 and 2012 victories and is, by many accounts, the most skillful practitioner of techno-politics in the country today.
Plouffe argues that tea-party incumbents are much more vulnerable than is commonly recognized — but only to challengers who are able to expand the size of the turnout in GOP primaries. Higher turnout is a result, he explains, of good candidates who can energize volunteers and “good data” that can identify who has voted over the past few elections and who hasn’t — and then drive turnout for the challenger.
In states with open primaries where independents can vote, expanding the turnout in GOP primaries would be relatively easy, Plouffe says. But even in states with closed primaries, good data and voter-mobilization tools would put many districts within reach of a strong, well-financed challenger.
The country has lived through a nightmare over the last few weeks, but the tea party is already gearing up for the next round. “See, we’re going to start this all over again,” promises Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana. Republicans who want to stop this destructive politics from further undermining their party and the nation need to get started now.