Tea party unscathed in early GOP civil war
By: Anna Palmer
November 26, 2013 04:59 AM EST
The Republican civil war erupted into full view this fall, and the establishment looked like it was about to shove the movement back in line.
But the early skirmishes ended with the tea party no weaker than it was.
And while the party’s internal fight will rage on, the opening battles suggest the establishment is just starting to see how much it will take to reclaim the power it has ceded to the movement in recent years.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee’s first big play: threaten to blacklist any consultant who does business with a key group taking on sitting Republicans.
The result: pretty much business as usual.
Meanwhile, members of Congress pleaded with corporate America to commit big money to support business-friendly candidates willing to take on the tea party.
The result: early interest but no coordinated effort to take out challengers.
Part of the establishment’s problem is it emboldened the movement for years. Republicans rode the tea party wave in 2010 and then cheered the rise of unlimited fundraising that allowed outside groups to flourish and prop up more candidates willing to take on the establishment.
“This process is one that has been unfolding for a while, so the idea that you are now going to wrestle control back from the people who vote, good luck with that,” said former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, discounting the recent victory of Bradley Byrne, an Alabama Republican who was backed by business and won a recent Republican special runoff election. “You can sit there and claim victory because you financed a candidate that happened to win in Alabama all you want. At the end of the day, this is a much larger thing than one race at one time. You’ve got to put it in the proper context.”
Now that the genie’s out of the bottle, the establishment is discovering it’s a lot harder to put it back in.
The NRSC in particular has ramped up its efforts — taking on the Senate Conservatives Fund after the tea party group targeted Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
So far, the threats have done little to scare conservative activists or bring them any closer to working with the party.
Take Jamestown Associates, the group singled out for working with the SCF. It has continued to do work with the group, despite the pressure.
In part, the warning shot was an empty threat: The NRSC hasn’t done work with Jamestown since the 2010 cycle, after the firm posted an advertisement seeking “hicky” looking actors for an ad in a West Virginia race.
Sources familiar with Jamestown’s decision said the firm made a calculated business decision that SFC is going to make them more money than the party committees.
“Nobody is a babe in the woods here on this. They have to know that they are taking a risk,” said one GOP operative who is familiar with Jamestown taking on business attacking McConnell.
Other official party committees, like the RNC, also aren’t a big help increasing the threat since the RNC has brought all of its creative video content in-house. And a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee declined to comment about whether the party committee would commit to blacklisting Jamestown.
The clash between the establishment and movement conservatives has only begun in full in recent weeks. Both sides are digging in. And establishment supporters say they will get results — ultimately.
The establishment has had at least one success. Lisa Lisker and compliance firm Huckaby Davis Lisker are winding down the work they do for the SCF, according to a source familiar with the situation. The firm does work for many Republican entities, including her partner Stan Huckaby, who serves as treasurer to the NRSC.
But Matt Hoskins, the fund’s executive director, said the establishment “bullying” isn’t going to make the group change course. They are still going to run straight at sitting Republicans they don’t deem sufficiently conservative.
“It’s sad that Mitch McConnell is now bullying bookkeepers in his quest for power, but it won’t stop us. Mitch McConnell refuses to fight for conservative principles and it’s time for a change,” Hoskins said. “Lisa Lisker has been a valuable part of our team, but we understand that her livelihood was at risk. We hope to be able to work with her again after Mitch McConnell is defeated.”
GOP-ers say it’s not surprising the party committees and others are trying to push back.
“They’re trying to kill the king, basically,” said former National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Davis of SCF trying to unseat McConnell.
The Virginia Republican said that he supports the GOP’s more aggressive tack against consultants just looking to make money who aren’t concerned about achieving a Republican majority.
“I’m very nervous that this thing gets escalated where we have two parties and everybody has a primary, but maybe that’s what it takes. Right now, that’s where you are heading anyway,” Davis said. “Republicans either have primaries to the right or they are scared of primaries to the right, and that’s no way to live or function. Look, they have shown amazing patience. But if it’s cost you five Senate seats over two cycles, you’ve got to know it is a losing strategy.”
With Congress expected to have to raise the debt ceiling and pass another government funding bill in early 2014, that friction isn’t expected to diminish anytime soon.
NRSC spokesman Brad Dayspring said the committee’s goal is to win the Senate majority and make it a “more conservative, functional place” and that others starting primary fights for profit endanger that outcome.
“There’s nothing ‘conservative’ about an organization that has no accountability, no oversight and no return on investment for the hardworking grass-roots folks who donate to it,” Dayspring said of SCF. “This is the political major leagues; final results are the only thing that matters. The chatter between now and then is little more than Beltway catnip.”
Still, Steele said the party’s effort to stifle activists will fail because many activists see themselves as conservatives, not Republicans, first.
“The establishment thought, ‘Oh, once they get to Washington, we’ll wrap our arms around them, we’ll put a shrimp in one hand and a committee assignment in the other and they’ll be ours,’ and they were like, ‘Keep your shrimp, I don’t want your committee assignment and I’m not voting for the same old crap you put out every year,’” said Steele of the ongoing fight.
While many GOP consultants sympathize with Republican leaders frustrated over lost primary battles that have left them unable to regain the majority in the Senate, there is also growing worry that picking a fight with activists could backfire.
“I just don’t think edicts from Washington as it relates to free and fair elections are ever a good thing,” said GOP consultant Hogan Gidley, who has served as an adviser to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
And the effort has backfired when it comes to the conservative pundit class. Not only have talking heads like Erick Erickson and Sean Hannity not been won over by the establishment’s argument, they are using their megaphones to take up a crusade defending SCF and their consultants.
“McConnell would rather rule in Hell than serve in Heaven. He’d rather be minority leader, than have a Republican Senate majority without him,” Erickson recently wrote on RedState.com.
Republicans are also training their fire on conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation and its recently minted political arm Heritage Action. After years of being the backbone of many Republican legislative policies, lawmakers have been ripping the group and its president, former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), for taking shots at conservative lawmakers.
Tensions got so high earlier this year that the conservative Republican Study Committee opted to kick Heritage staffers out of a weekly meeting after Heritage urged lawmakers to vote no on the farm bill. The group’s decision to oppose the legislation that stripped out food stamps and other language, even though Heritage had urged House leadership to strip it out, was seen as the final straw for many conservative members.
Georgia Republican Lynn Westmoreland said of the group: “I think they’ve lost credibility with the people that were most supportive of them.
Republicans ripping Heritage Action’s tactics and banning their operatives from weekly Republican Study Committee meetings also haven’t moved the group to capitulate.
Heritage Action’s Dan Holler said that the group will stay the course and that GOP lawmakers should be concerned about turning off conservative Republican voters who feel Washington is disconnected from them.
“The Republican Party loves them when they go and knock on doors and make phone calls, but after the election, they pat you on the head and say, ‘We’ll call you in two years when we need manpower on the ground.’ Folks are tired of that,” Holler said. “The signals those tactics send to conservatives outside of Washington is that the Republican Party is not on their side, and that’s a terrible signal to send.”