For several years, the most-hurled epithet in Republican Party politics has been an acronym: RINO, or Republican in name only.
It almost always is used by conservatives and tea party members against moderates in the GOP.
In 2014, though, the most interesting and important political battle will center on which wing of the Republican Party gets to decide who really is a RINO.
Last week, for example, conservatives labeled House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., RINOs for their efforts to pass the federal budget compromise that included slightly higher spending. But here’s the thing: 169 Republicans in the House voted “yes.” Only 62 Republicans opposed the budget deal. So who are the real RINOs? Those in the GOP majority who bought into the budget agreement, or those who rejected it?
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Some Republicans are quietly asking that question. They are increasingly worried voters blame their party for ongoing government dysfunction, endangering the party’s chance to gain seats in Congress next year and the White House in 2016.
And there’s an intriguing possibility the GOP moderates will make their concerns public in 2014. There is some chatter that well-known middle-of-the-road Republicans will support Democrat Paul Davis in the Kansas governor’s race against conservative Republican Sam Brownback.
The Republicans can’t bring themselves to become Democrats, it turns out, but they believe they can pull their party back to the center by backing Davis in November.
Conservatives almost certainly will call them Republicans in name only. The moderates, though, will argue that tea party hard-liners are the real RINOs.
There’s a slim chance the strategy might work. Conservatives can make the RINO label stick in a GOP primary, where their influence is significant. In a general election, though, it may be easier to suggest no-compromise conservatives are the real outliers, not the deal-makers.
Of course, the moderate-conservative name-calling could backfire, leaving both wings of the party disillusioned and upset. That might damage the party’s chances beyond immediate repair.
But Republicans on both sides seem prepared to fight it out. And the sound you’re hearing is the first round in that debate: Who is a RINO? And who isn’t?
Paul Ryan is leading in Iowa, by the way.