GOP leaders still struggle with party's wingers
By: Anna Palmer
September 25, 2013 06:00 PM EDT
Coming off a difficult 112th Congress, Republican leaders knew that they needed to build bridges with right-leaning groups that have been giving them fits since the 2010 elections.
Nine months later, the results aren’t great, to say the least.
This week’s showdown over defunding Obamacare at the expense of potentially shutting down the government is the most recent example in a series of fights activists have supported, including forcing a debate on National Security Agency surveillance, filibustering nominations in the Senate and thwarting Republican support for gun control legislation.
If one of the lessons of 2012 for the GOP leadership was to make peace with its rightward flank, so far, it’s not getting a passing grade when it comes to establishing a real sense of teamwork. Tea party lawmakers are still willing to buck party leaders, often at the behest of conservative groups, despite the fact that top aides to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) have organized a regular invite-only meeting of roughly a dozen advocates from entities like R Street Institute, Independent Women’s Forum, American Conservative Union and Americans for Tax Reform to encourage an open dialogue.
In part, leadership’s struggle to woo so-called wingers to its side remains an uphill fight because there is often a basic disagreement within the new conservative base about the best path forward and many tea partiers aren’t interested in the typical horse trading and compromise that typically have helped make deals on Capitol Hill.
For instance, ATR’s Grover Norquist pushed for Republicans to embrace a delay Obamacare tactic while others on the right joined the chorus of those backing defunding. Still, Norquist said he hopes the defund supporters win.
“The people who said they had a plan to make the Senate pass it are now at bat, and I hope they win,” Norquist said. “I don’t know how to make a Democrat vote for the gutting of Obamacare, but if they do — and they told us they did — then that would be great.”
Conservative groups have upped the ante recently with its phone-banking of GOP members on defunding Obamacare — which has caused vocal complaints among conservative activists and staffers upset with their tactics.
Veteran conservative activist Ralph Reed said the debates over the best course of action on the Hill demonstrate the ongoing conversation on the right — and the difficulty the GOP leadership faces trying to tame a movement that itself is split into factions.
“You are seeing a very spirited, no-holds-barred debate outside of Capitol Hill by outside organizations, by Republican conservative strategists, in blogs by opinion leaders, publications like the National Review, [The] Weekly Standard and others,” said Reed, who was instrumental in helping usher the rise of the conservative movement in the 1990s as executive director of the Christian Coalition.
“The views on this are not unanimous by any stretch of the imagination,” Reed said of shutting down the government and attempting to stop or limit Obamacare. “There is a tremendous amount of discussion about the most effective path forward, given the impending debt limit deadline — and whether or not there ought to be certain conditions” beyond House Speaker John Boehner’s conditions.
At the same time, Republican leadership’s relationship with groups like Club for Growth, which enjoys a reputation of successfully backing GOP incumbents in primaries, Senate Conservative Fund and the more recently formed Heritage Action Fund is at an all-time low. Heritage Action employees were recently barred from attending the weekly conservative Republican Study Committee meeting in the House. And several Republican lawmakers have publicly groused about Senate Conservative Fund and Club for Growth’s political tactics.
The Republican pivot to try to embrace some movement conservatives also comes as McConnell himself is trying to find more friends on the right as he faces a tough reelection battle with conservative primary challenger Matt Bevin and Democratic candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is backed by top Democratic Party leaders and is receiving financial support from deep-pocketed donors.
Many Kentucky conservative activists see McConnell tacking right as a matter of tactics rather than true beliefs — and nationally, the same perception exists. The outreach to conservative groups is seen as more out of necessity than desire, according to one veteran Republican strategist.
“The party has never been at a weaker place in the last 25 years. There is more division now between elected officials and the base than I’ve ever seen,” said the strategist who attends many of the coalition group meetings. “It’s always good to build trust, understand, focus energies — it’s a two-way street. It’s important for leadership to be in touch with the base. It’s their instinct to say, ‘Oh, those guys are crazy. They don’t get it. I’m not going to meet with them anymore.’ It only exacerbates the tension.”
For all their efforts at inclusion, GOP leaders also have to contend with a series of long-standing regular sessions where conservatives for years have come together to influence Republican policy and political debates. Interviews with more than a dozen Republican aides and veteran movement conservative operatives reveal a loosely organized network of strictly “off-the-record” meetings that are held nearly every day of the week when Congress is in session:
• Heritage Foundation: A small group of about 20 to 30 more policy-focused Hill staff, former staffers and Heritage personnel meet regularly at the group’s Capitol Hill headquarters. “All have the same theme — how do we move the conservative movement forward,” said one attendee. Participants have included Hazen Marshall of The Nickles Group, Bill Wichterman of Covington & Burling, Neil Bradley, deputy chief of staff to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), among others.
• Steering Committee: Focused on the conservative agenda, the meeting led by Steering Committee Chairman Pat Toomey’s (R-Pa.) staff pairs Senate Republican staff and outside representatives to talk about high-priority issues. “It’s a good way for conservatives to make sure the fight on defunding Obamacare stays on the agenda and people stay on message,” said one staffer, who regularly attends the meetings. “It’s a way to get away from following leaders and organize themselves separate from leadership.” Issues they’ve helped stir up include the fight over the NSA and pushing for Republicans to not support guns legislation.
• Americans for Tax Reform’s “Wednesday Meeting”: Led by Grover Norquist, the meeting is probably the most widely reported center-right coalition meeting. The session brings together the entire GOP political spectrum from libertarians, to fiscal conservatives, to anti-abortion representatives. State, local and federal candidates also attend when they are doing the Washington rounds. Leadership aides also are usually present and can engage in an extensive question-and-answer debate. Best reason to attend: “You can make your pitch and get 20 new contacts to help you out,” according to one regular attendee.
• Weyrich Lunch: Founded by legendary conservative activist Paul Weyrich, the meeting of about 50 social conservatives in the basement of Capitol Hill coffee shop Ebenezers is now led by Morton Blackwell, who must call on attendees before they can speak. Let Freedom Ring’s Colin Hanna also plays a large role in the meeting, which is an important launching pad for building coalitions. When lawmakers come and speak, Hanna will often ask for a show of hands on who will sign a letter in support of the cause and activists may be asked to turn on the grass roots with phone calls.
• Values Action Team: Started in the late 1990s, there are meetings on the Senate and House side focused on social conservatives and pro-life coalitions. Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) and John Fleming (R-La.) co-chair the House effort while Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) spearhead the effort in the Senate.
Despite the many long-standing huddles, leadership’s push to make inroads with conservatives is welcomed, activists say, even if it so far shows minimal results.
“A lot of the right wing is about relations. It’s much easier to fight amongst your friends than among perfect strangers,” said one Republican strategist. “You try to keep up your relationships in that circle so when it comes time to heavily disagree, you disagree in your own inner circle than publicly.”
And while they may not always agree, activists like Larry Hart of the American Conservative Union said that the uptick in communication ensures that their views are heard at the highest levels.
“We’ve had the opportunity to discuss at length all the major issues that have come up with leadership staff and some members,” Hart said. “Whether we agree or disagree on every single issues is not as important as the ability to communicate.”