The Republican Party is at war with itself. It’s divided over how best to shrink the federal budget and how to undo President Obama’s health care law. It hasn’t been notably successful at either, which helps explain why its standing in the eyes of most voters has plummeted to depths not seen in three decades of modern polling.
None of this was planned, of course; parties don’t flirt with political suicide on purpose. But it wasn’t accidental either. Behind the GOP crack-up over the government shutdown lies a much bigger battle for control of the party.
And the most important actors aren’t Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and the tea party members of the House who brought us the government shutdown. The party rift’s chief driver is a constellation of hard-line conservative fundraising groups, led in part by a former senator most Americans couldn’t pick out of a lineup, Jim DeMint of South Carolina.
When DeMint resigned from the Senate in January to become president of the Heritage Foundation, many were mystified; he was abandoning a safe seat with four years left in his term, all to run an aging conservative think tank across the street.
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But DeMint has quickly turned Heritage – especially its new lobbying arm, Heritage Action for America – into a powerful engine of pressure on Republicans in Congress to move further to the right and reject almost any form of compromise with Obama.
It was Heritage Action that focused tea party conservatives in the House on the idea of using this fall’s long-scheduled votes on federal spending to try to “defund” Obamacare, and the group then organized a summer-long campaign (starring Cruz) to publicize the idea.
Meanwhile, the Senate Conservatives Fund, a separate political action committee that DeMint founded, played the role of enforcer, publicly attacking GOP members of Congress who didn’t fall in line.
The drive to defund Obamacare hasn’t accomplished much so far, but that doesn’t appear to worry Heritage Action’s 31-year-old CEO, Michael A. Needham. He said last week the group’s long-term goal was to transform the GOP, which he called “the allegedly conservative party.” The shutdown, he insisted, was a step on “a path to electoral success.”
There have been insurgent movements in American political parties before, of course. Goldwater conservatives broke with the party’s mainstream in 1964, and anti-war liberals divided the Democratic Party during the Vietnam War.
Those movements, like this one, aimed to change their own parties first, on the assumption that voters wanted a purer form of politics.
But here’s what’s different about DeMint and his allies: They are eager to target Republican incumbents, even to the point of challenging them in Republican primaries. And DeMint is helping to build an impressive and apparently permanent infrastructure of fundraising organizations with the avowed goal of displacing the GOP’s traditional business backers.
But they should expect some push-back. K Street Republican lobbyists told me last week they were already organizing to support endangered incumbents, and plan to do some “primarying” of their own, funding moderate GOP challengers to several tea party members of the House.
Ronald Reagan, an icon to both sides in this fight, said to GOP volunteers in 1967: “There is room in our tent for many views. It is not your duty, responsibility or privilege to tear down or attempt to destroy others in the tent.”
Some of his heirs aren’t so sure.