Watch Live

Tweet TWEET

Tea Party Battles Centrists for Republicans’ Soul: Albert Hunt

Politicians and political scientists debate whether the greater priority in achieving electoral success in the U.S. is to energize a party’s base or appeal to independent-minded centrists.

Both matter, and in a year in which Republicans are poised to make big gains in congressional elections, this continues to roil the party; how it plays out may affect the shape of the November elections and the agenda, even the presidential nomination contest in ensuing years.

The debate within Republican ranks -- whether to rigorously adhere to core principles or broaden appeal --is exemplified by the two senators from South Carolina. They are conservative Republicans with decidedly different views.

“If it gets impossible to compromise on immigration, energy and climate then the country is going to go away from the two-party system,” says Lindsey Graham, an outreach Republican. “If I can’t sit down and work with a Democrat to save Social Security from bankruptcy, who the hell is going to do it?”

Jim DeMint, the Palmetto State’s junior senator, says the notion of a “big tent” is fine, with an important condition: “Big tents need strong poles and the strongest pole of our party -- the organizing principle and the crucial alternative to the Democrats -- must be freedom.”

Primary Wins

Both types of Republicans scored major successes in this season’s primaries. Tea Party or DeMint-type conservatives beat establishment candidates in contests for U.S. Senate seats in Kentucky and Nevada, and a number of House races. California nominated two women who are former CEOs, Graham-type Republicans, for governor and senator.

As the battle for the Republican soul plays out over the next four and half months, there are several indicators to watch.

One is, will Tea Party conservatives modify or run away from some of their most controversial, if principled, positions?

In Nevada, Sharron Angle, who upset the party favorite to take on the vulnerable Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, has declared the Department of Education unconstitutional, wants the U.S. to withdraw from the United Nations and to privatize Social Security.

In Kentucky, the Tea Party endorsed Rand Paul (son of the conservative libertarian presidential aspirant Ron Paul), who has suggested the Americans with Disabilities Act was unnecessary and wants to disband the Federal Reserve. Colorado Senate candidate Ken Buck, who may well upset the establishment candidate in the Aug. 10 Republican primary, wants to end federal support for the Postal Service and the Amtrak rail service.

Toning Down

Paul has backed away from the reservations he has expressed about the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act -- which made it illegal for businesses to discriminate against customers based on race -- and Angle has retreated from her suggestion that she’d like to outlaw alcohol, undoubtedly a troubling position in Las Vegas. Democrats will hammer at other issues and test the ideological purity of these office seekers.

The Tea Party activists have shaken up some of the Republican leadership’s plans to win back the House. High on the target list was Northern Virginia Democrat Gerald Connolly, representing a seat long held by moderate Republican Tom Davis before he retired. Although the party was pushing a Davis-type candidate, Pat Herrity, he was defeated in the primary in an upset by Keith Fimian, who campaigned on staunch opposition to abortion and stem-cell research and in favor of a possible privatization of Social Security. With Fimian, who was clobbered by Connolly last time, Republicans are less sanguine about winning this seat now.

Move to Center

On the other side, will more moderate Republicans move to the center for the general election, figuring the right-wing base still prefers them to Democrats?

In California, Meg Whitman, former CEO of EBay Inc. (EBAY), won the gubernatorial nomination, and Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard Co., captured the Senate nod. Both beat more conservative candidates while adopting anti-immigration stances inconsistent with their past positions. (Fiorina, in a bow to the gun lobby, even defended the right of people on the government’s “no-fly” list to purchase a gun.) With a much larger Hispanic and independent vote in November, will they switch back?

And Republican Senate and House hopefuls in Northeastern and industrial states -- Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Hampshire -- will be cross-pressured between Tea Party activists and more centrist independents.

Tackling Regulation

Smaller government and less spending will be a common refrain for Republicans of all stripes. More vexing will be how these candidates handle the increasingly complicated issue of regulation.

After BP Plc’s cataclysmic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Republican mantra of “drill, baby, drill” has been quiescent. So has Rand Paul’s initial charge that President Barack Obama’s criticism of BP was “anti-American.” Whitman declared she’s more “a Main Street CEO than a Wall Street denizen;” she was a director of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS)

Republican candidates universally assail Obama’s health- care overhaul, many promising to repeal or defund it -- ignoring that Obama’s veto pen stands in the way of even a Republican- controlled Congress. Still, it may be dicey to call for ending some of the sweeping new regulations in that measure, such as prohibiting insurance companies for denying coverage because of pre-existing conditions.

Presidential Nominees

If the Angles and Pauls prove too controversial, and most of the November Republican winners are more mainstream conservatives, it will have two immediate effects: Pressure the congressional party to think more in Graham’s terms and selectively work with Democrats, and provide a more compelling case for a more moderately conservative presidential nominee with gubernatorial experience, such as former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty or Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels.

Conversely, if the Tea Party aspirants score big victories with big turnouts, the consequence could be the death of any bipartisanship in the next Congress as the energized Republican base wouldn’t stand for it. This could provide the impetus for non-establishment presidential candidates such as Sarah Palin, DeMint or one of the new grassroots stars.

(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Albert R. Hunt in Washington at ahunt1@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net.

Press spacebar to pause and continue. Press esc to stop.

Bloomberg reserves the right to remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.