Washington — A Republican civil war is raging, with righter-than-thou conservatives dominating ever more primaries in a fight for the party’s soul. And the Democrats hope to benefit.
The latest examples of conservative insurgents’ clout came Tuesday at opposite ends of the country. In Florida, political newcomer Rick Scott beat longtime congressman and state Attorney General Bill McCollum for the GOP gubernatorial nomination. And in Alaska, tea party activists and Sarah Palin pushed Sen. Lisa Murkowski to the brink of defeat, depending on absentee ballot counts in her race against outsider Joe Miller.
The GOP is likely to survive its bitter intraparty battles in such states as Alaska and Utah, even if voters oust veteran senators in both. But tea party-backed candidates might be a godsend to desperate Democrats elsewhere — in Nevada, Florida and perhaps Kentucky, where the Democrats portray GOP nominees as too extreme for their states.
If Murkowski joins Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, as a victim of party activists who demand ideological purity, other Republicans are still likely to win in November, though Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., would have to deal with more maverick members who are loathe to compromise. And the conservative insurgency is hardly all-powerful, as Sen. John McCain proved by easily winning renomination in Arizona despite a challenge from the right by J.D. Hayworth.
The Republican Party’s chief danger lies in battleground states such as Florida and Nevada, where great opportunities might slip away. President Barack Obama and his Democrats see a silver lining amid political troubles driven by high unemployment and a stubbornly slow economic recovery.
The White House has tried to link the Republican Party with the fledgling conservative-libertarian tea party coalition — and demonize the combination as too extreme for the country.
That’s “the Republican tea party” that’s “offering more of the past but on steroids” and is “out of step with where the American people are,” Vice President Joe Biden told the party’s rank and file last week.
Nevada Republicans’ nomination of tea party favorite Sharron Angle may save Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic leader. His popularity has fallen sharply among state voters, but Democrats say Angle’s comments are scaring voters away from her and back toward him.
In Florida, the conventional wisdom was that McCollum, who had won election statewide, would be a stronger candidate than Scott against Democrat Alex Sink in the governor’s race. Democrats are certain to assail at least one aspect of Scott’s private-sector history: the $1.7 billion that Columbia/HCA hospital corporation paid to settle Medicare fraud charges when he was chief executive officer. In the Republican primary, Scott spent $39 million of his own money to promote his campaign and beat back such attacks.
In a sign of the Democratic Party’s own relative calm this year, Florida’s other insider-vs-outsider contest turned out much differently. Democratic Rep. Kendrick Meek defeated millionaire newcomer Jeff Greene for the party’s Senate nomination.
Even if GOP nominees make some rookie mistakes, general election voters might embrace them, said Republican strategist John Feehery. “This is a ‘big change’ election,” Feehery said. “If you are defending the establishment, you are in big trouble this time around.”
Still, tea party activism could cause worries for Republicans in Florida’s Senate race. Conservative Marco Rubio essentially chased Gov. Charlie Crist, then a Republican, out of the party. But a Meek-Rubio split of the vote on Nov. 2 could allow Crist to win the Senate seat as an independent, and he might caucus with Democrats in Washington.
In several other states, the likely impact of anti-establishment fervor and tea party activism is unclear.