Government shutdown: The latest conservative litmus test
By: James Hohmann
October 6, 2013 07:03 AM EDT
In 2010, a candidate’s stance on the Wall Street bailout was the litmus test that separated real conservatives from RINOs, or Republicans in Name Only.
This spring, it was comprehensive immigration reform. Anyone who supports it, the reaction on the right went, should be viewed with suspicion at best — or as a sellout at worst.
Now there’s another issue that threatens to deepen the GOP rift in 2014: which side were you on in the shutdown?
In primary campaigns where there’s not much daylight on policy between establishment Republicans and conservative challengers, how willing a candidate or incumbent was to close the government – and opposed to a compromise on Obamacare that would reopen it – looks like the base’s latest test of who’s a true believer or a squish. And for Republican elders who were urging an end to the intra-party warfare that cost the GOP Senate seats the past two election cycles, it’s another reminder the party isn’t remotely close.
In 2014, the shutdown could strengthen the hand of tea party candidates who stake their campaigns on an unbending commitment to conservative principles — even if the price in a general election is steep.
Challengers are already attacking incumbents who broke with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) on last week’s procedural vote on a stopgap spending bill, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), as soft on the issue.
“Republicans who vote to fund Obamacare have reason to worry,” said Senate Conservatives Fund Executive Director Matt Hoskins. “Americans overwhelmingly oppose Obamacare and they don’t want to be forced to pay for it. Republican voters expect their nominees to do more than pay lip service to their principles. They expect them to fight for them.”
Cruz has incensed many in his caucus by giving the right such fresh ammunition without offering a clear end-game strategy. The senator faced a barrage of hostile questions at a closed-door lunch Wednesday, when he refused to renounce attacks by the Senate Conservatives Funds on his colleagues.
For now, fear of being attacked as wobbly has prompted most of the mainstream Republicans running for Senate to issue equivocal statements about the shutdown. They hope they will have the flexibility to pivot to wherever the electorate is next year and to give the Democrats as little ammunition as possible.
“Anyone who has a tough primary is kind of cowed into holding the line,” said a Republican who managed a Senate campaign last year. “It’s a scary thing to stare down that gun when you’re trying to win a race. The gun seems to be getting more powerful.”
The dynamic is already coming into play in several key races.
McConnell fought against the law in 2010 but broke with Cruz last week. Now his primary challenger in Kentucky, Matt Bevin, is seizing on it.
“Matt has long made the argument that Mitch McConnell has refused to join conservatives like Ted Cruz and Mike Lee in the fight to defund Obamacare,” said Bevin spokeswoman Sarah Durand.
The McConnell campaign calls the attack desperate. Republican voters, the senator’s aides say, know he’s been outspoken against the law for years.
Still, the defund vote could be a key data point to sketch a broader narrative against some incumbents.
“If you’re somebody who voted to cave on the fiscal cliff tax increase and on debt ceiling increases and Obamacare, it doesn’t leave you with much to go back to your base with and ask them to reelect you,” said Keith Appell, a conservative strategist who works with outside groups that oppose incumbents in primaries.
In Alaska, meanwhile, Joe Miller, who is trying to make a comeback after losing in 2010, has advocated shutting down the government as a means to hobble the health care law. His campaign is going after rivals for not being as firm on the issue.
“It’s got to be stopped,” Miller said in an August radio interview. “All cards are on the table, including the only cards the Republicans really have and that is shutting down the government.”
Miller now blames Democrats for the shutdown, but added in an email on Wednesday, “The U.S. House has the Constitutional power of the purse, and that should be respected.”
Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, trying to present himself as the more electable option against incumbent Sen. Mark Begich (D), wrote a more anodyne note on his Facebook wall.
“As I have said in the past, I do not support shutting down the government. Our leaders need to come to the table and negotiate a solution to the big problems that face our country,” he said. But then he stressed that he “will fight with those principled members of the Senate like Ted Cruz to make sure Obamacare is repealed” if he’s elected.
Miller spokesman Randy DeSoto criticized Treadwell for supporting Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s successful write-in campaign against Miller in 2010, noting that she just voted against Cruz last week.
“Joe Miller has been one of Obamacare’s staunchest foes from the outset, because he could readily see the ill effects it would bring upon the people of Alaska,” DeSoto said.
Dan Sullivan, a former George W. Bush appointee who just stepped down as the natural resources commissioner to join the race, has avoided weighing in. He is competing with Treadwell for establishment and donor support. Sullivan did not respond to an email for this story.
“Apparently he’s just going to vote present,” quipped DeSoto.
How long the shutdown lasts, how it gets resolved and what happens with the debt ceiling later this month will ultimately determine the potency of the issue and how deeply it divides Republicans in 2014.
Conservative outside groups that could get involved in primaries are watching to see whether members cave or extract enough concessions from President Barack Obama to claim victory.
“It all kind of depends on what happens next,” said Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller. “If the policy is good, then it won’t be as much of a litmus test. If the policy is bad, then it will play a bigger role.”
The Club is using the cloture vote on whether to defund Obamacare, in which 25 Republicans broke with Cruz after his all-night floor speech, in upcoming rankings of senators.
“We always look at the whole record,” said Keller. “We never promise to do anything based on one vote. It’s usually a pattern of misbehavior that precipitates our involvement in a race.”
Graham voted against the health care law as well as to defund it last week. But he broke with Cruz on the cloture motion, and in South Carolina, his main primary opponent has already begun trying to use it against him.
“It is another indication of how out of touch Graham remains, and a sign that he will continue to be a vote against the new and refreshing conservative voices of Senators Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Mike Lee,” the challenger, Nancy Mace, wrote in a fundraising email.
Graham’s campaign posted a nine-point list of steps he’s taken to slow or block implementation of the law.
Republican strategist Brian Walsh said attacking more establishment-friendly Republicans from the right on the shutdown may backfire.
“The argument could cut both ways,” said Walsh. “Let’s start from the predicate that there will have to be a compromise, which some of the outside groups will oppose. On the one hand, you’ll have outside groups demanding purity. On the other hand, you go too far and risk not being seen as a serious leader.”
Walsh said mainstream GOP primary voters have grown tired of unelectable nominees after at least five winnable races were lost the last two cycles — from Todd Akin in Missouri to Christine O’Donnell in Delaware.
Some Washington Republicans involved in Senate races downplay the significance of last week’s procedural vote, saying votes on rules of debate are hard to use in attack ads.
“Defunding Obamacare is very popular but shutting down the government is not, even among Republicans,” said one prominent GOP strategist. “As long as a candidate can credibly make the case that they fought against Obamacare tooth and nail, they should be fine.”