Six years after the end of the George W. Bush administration, Republicans remain at odds internally over the direction of the party, struggling between pushes for purity and electability.
In the last two election cycles ideological purity was on the rise in Republican primary races, but this primary season the ability to win elections appeared to be winning out — until recent contests in Mississippi and Virginia showed there was life yet in the insurgency that began as a way to scrub from the GOP some of the marks of Mr. Bush’s tenure.
The mixed results are just the latest rounds in a decades-long brawl within the GOP over whether the party’s top priority should be winning elections, which often means going with less conservative candidates, or sticking to a low taxes, limited government message.
“This has been a party that has been sick long before George Bush became the most visible symptom of its sickness,” GOP strategist Michael McKenna said of the second President Bush. “This is a disease that goes all the way back to [his] daddy’s folding on taxes in 1990. So, almost 24 years of problems aren’t going to rectify themselves in six years.”
In the 2014 primaries, the electability crowd has struck, with groups like the Chamber of Commerce and Karl Rove’s super PAC American Crossroads helping Republican incumbents — including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson — fend off challenges from their right.
The same groups also helped Rep. Jack Kingston advance to a July 22 runoff race in Georgia against businessman David Perdue, ending bids from more conservative candidates.
The electability argument was captured earlier this year by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, addressing activists at the Conservative Political Action Conference in March, where he said after six years without the White House, conservatives must set some realistic priorities.
“We don’t get to govern if we don’t win,” said Mr. Christie, a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate. “So please let’s come out of here resolved not only to stand for our principles. Let’s come out of this conference resolved to win elections again.”
But June has seen the insurgent side of the party push back, with libertarian leaning challenger Dave Brat unseating House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a shocking Virginia primary election last week, and tea party-backed state Sen. Chris McDaniel pushing Sen. Thad Cochran into a runoff in Mississippi’s GOP primary.
“I think what we are trying to do is shift the behavior of the Republican Party in office,” said Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, which has backed Mr. McDaniel and other conservative primary challengers. “We are writing the talking points. We are setting the policy agenda.”
Mr. Kibbe said he has never bought into the sharp division between sticking to principle and winning, arguing that Republicans’ biggest electoral successes came during times when they stood their ground: President Reagan’s election in 1980, the Republican “Contract with America” House takeover of 1994 and the 2010 tea party wave.
“Every single one of those elections were run on issues, run on principles,” Mr. Kibbe said. “Running as Democrat-lite has never been an effective strategy for Republicans, and they can’t point to actual success stories.”
For some analysts, there are themes that can narrow the gap between purity and electability.
“What I see inside the Republican Party for the past 20 years or so is a pattern where there is a concern about economic conservatism, and when incumbent Republicans lose sight of being an economic conservative first, Republican voters punish them,” said Greg Strimple, a GOP pollster.
Indeed, the calls for political cleansing spiked in Mr. Bush’s second term, when Congress added hundreds of billions of dollars to the deficit rather than cut spending elsewhere to pay for two wars and for recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina.
The $700 billion Wall Street bailout at the end of Mr. Bush’s tenure, followed by Mr. Obama’s stimulus and health care laws helped intensify the opposition.
The overall success helped paper over a divisive primary season in which tea party-backed Mike Lee toppled then-Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah and Sen. Lisa Murkowski lost the GOP nomination in Alaska, only to run and win a write-in campaign to retain her seat.
The grass-roots movement helped elect Republican Sens. Rand Paul in Kentucky, Marco Rubio in Florida and Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania. But it was blamed for missing opportunities to pick up winnable seats in Colorado, Delaware and Nevada.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, meanwhile, lost the presidential race after grass-roots activists halfheartedly embraced him after desperately searching for a more conservative alternative.
The losses sparked a period of GOP soul-searching and inspired party pragmatists such as former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour to warn once again that: “Purity is the enemy of victory.”
“Being the purest, most conservative loser does not allow America to improve one iota,” Mr. Barbour said at the Republican Leadership Conference last month.
The following day, Mr. Cruz delivered a different message at the same conference.
“I disagree with a lot of folks in Washington because a lot of folks in Washington think the way you bring more people into your tent is you abandon your principles,” Mr. Cruz said. “This not how you get a bigger tent. The way you get a bigger coalition, a bigger team, is you stand for principles that go to the core of who we are as Americans and that give people a reason to show up and vote.”
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