Republicans Still Face Threats on the Right

The Republican agenda on Capitol Hill largely is framed by the most conservative of the conservatives.
Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky is among the potential stars of the 2016 Republican presidential race.

The Republican establishment beat back most challenges from its movement right in this year's primaries, including a play to fill the House majority leader slot.

Some business interests and entrenched congressional politicians argue the party's right wing is in retreat. Not so.

Many of the more establishment Republicans who prevailed in primaries had moved decidedly to the right. The Republican agenda on Capitol Hill largely is framed by the most conservative of the conservatives.

"The movement right is as strong as ever," says Michael Needham, chief executive officer of Heritage Action, a leading conservative advocacy group. "We're out front on ideas and technology."

The movement right isn't easily defined. It includes anti-immigrant activists, social-issue fundamentalists and the economic right, where conservative intellectuals are trying to fashion new ideas. It is less enamored with big business than more traditional Republicans.

Jeb Bush, John Boehner, the Chamber of Commerce and Karl Rove, a former top adviser to George W. Bush, are in the establishment camp. Senators Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, along with the Tea Party, belong to the diffuse movement right.

The right wing suffered a series of visible primary election defeats. Most prominently, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell easily beat back a challenger in Kentucky, and Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran survived a brutal battle. (The surprising defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was attributable to his falling out of touch with his Virginia constituents.)

But many of the victors have been veering sharply to the right. McConnell's campaign manager is Rand Paul's top political operative. The Republican Senate candidate for Iowa, Joni Ernst, embraced the possibility of impeaching President Barack Obama; North Carolina's Senate nominee, Thom Tillis, trumpeted his opposition to same-sex marriage; and the veteran Kansas Senator Pat Roberts, facing a primary challenge next month, has voted against raising the debt ceiling and against the farm bill.

"I have no problems with some of these candidates," says Sal Russo, a Reagan Republican who is chief strategist of the Tea Party Express political action committee.

While the leadership in Congress is establishment, there's a starboard tilt in party caucuses. In the House, the Republican right killed immigration reform, a top priority of the business community.

Now it wants to kill the Export-Import Bank, which assists U.S. companies exporting overseas.

This issue crystallizes the divide. Much of the right considers the bank's aid a form of crony capitalism. Needham calls it "Boeing's bank," a reference to the subsidies it provides to the U.S. aircraft manufacturer.

Ohio Senator Rob Portman, a top trade and budget official in the George W. Bush administration and one of the most respected members of the Republican establishment, calls the Export-Import Bank an invaluable tool for U.S. companies "to be able to succeed in the international marketplace."

The bank, which in fact turns a small profit for taxpayers, may survive, but the fight has laid open a party schism. A leading indicator: The new House majority leader, Kevin McCarthy of California, hoping to avoid a challenge within his conference in the next Congress, switched positions and now opposes reauthorization of the bank.

Looking ahead to the 2016 presidential contest, all the vitality is on the right -- with Cruz, Paul and perhaps former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee in the mix. There is no Republican establishment favorite.

Activists say this will energize Republicans to offer voters a vibrant choice rather than an uninspiring echo.

Conservatives in and out of Congress are coming up with a lot of ideas to help craft a more positive agenda. The aim is to appeal to more independent-minded and younger voters; the danger is the ferment gets lost in internal struggles over national security, the priorities of hot-button social issues and, as always, immigration. The Mississippi Senate fight this summer, with its ugly racial overtones, isn't a good harbinger.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.