Opinion: Breaking tea party grip won’t be easy

October 21, 2013


— Many Republicans have been muttering over the last few weeks of political craziness that the tea party’s hold on the GOP must be broken to protect their party’s future health — not to mention, the country’s. So I’ve been asking Republicans what a movement to break the extremists’ power would actually look like.

I put the question to a half-dozen prominent Republican strategists and analysts, and to one particularly influential Democrat, David Plouffe. The answers convince me that a grass-roots movement to rebuild the GOP as a governing party is possible, but only if it’s a disciplined, well-financed effort that mobilizes voters in the Republican-leaning districts where the tea party is strong.

The key factor, several analysts told me, is whether major business groups such as the Chamber of Commerce are on board. “The business community has been AWOL,” argues Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar with the American Enterprise Institute. He says the traditional business groups such as the chamber have ceded the ground to more right-wing groups such as the Club for Growth and Heritage Action.

The numbers show why pro-business Republicans should be worried. The New York Times summarized a recent study by Macroeconomic Advisers that estimated the cost of this month’s shutdown at $12 billion in lost output; other estimates are double that. Over the past year, says Macroeconomic Advisers, uncertainty caused by budget showdowns has cost the nation $150 billion in GDP and 900,000 jobs.

A backlash is clearly building within the GOP and beyond. Conservative commentator Rod Dreher wrote in The American Conservative about “the tragedy of tea-party Republicans destroying their credibility with reckless brinksmanship.” David Frum, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, urged the GOP to expel tea-party members and argued, “Right now, tea-party extremism contaminates the whole Republican brand.”

GOP strategists told me the basic ingredients for revival include: good candidates in key districts, a national nest egg of perhaps $200 million to $300 million and a “galvanizing” national political leader such as Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey or former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida. Put these three factors together in the 2014 Republican primaries and you could see some surprising results, they argue.

Several strategists offered a similar breakdown of the House’s 232 GOP members: They say the key to change is challenging the 40 hard-core extremists and perhaps 40 more who sympathize with them, meanwhile protecting the roughly 100 conservative House Republicans who are wary of the tea party but don’t want to take on the Club for Growth and Heritage Action.

Strategists caution that primary challenges won’t work without good local candidates who are well funded. Otherwise, “the GOP is going over Niagara Falls,” says one prominent adviser to several Republican presidents.

An example of how the grass-roots process could work is the Grand Rapids, Mich., district of Rep. Justin Amash, a tea-party activist elected in 2010. As explained by The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker, Amash is facing a primary challenge from Brian Ellis, a local business leader who sits on the school board and epitomizes the traditional GOP mainstream. Similar primary challenges are brewing against tea-party Republicans in Alabama and Idaho, according to the Post’s Jia Lynn Yang and Tom Hamburger.

What are the political mechanics of rolling back tea-party power? For that, I turned to Plouffe, the Democratic master strategist who engineered President Obama’s 2008 and 2012 victories and is, by many accounts, the most skillful practitioner of techno-politics in the country today.

Plouffe argues that tea-party incumbents are much more vulnerable than is commonly recognized — but only to challengers who are able to expand the size of the turnout in GOP primaries. Higher turnout is a result, he explains, of good candidates who can energize volunteers and “good data” that can identify who has voted over the past few elections and who hasn’t — and then drive turnout for the challenger.

In states with open primaries where independents can vote, expanding the turnout in GOP primaries would be relatively easy, Plouffe says. But even in states with closed primaries, good data and voter-mobilization tools would put many districts within reach of a strong, well-financed challenger.

The country has lived through a nightmare over the last few weeks, but the tea party is already gearing up for the next round. “See, we’re going to start this all over again,” promises Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana. Republicans who want to stop this destructive politics from further undermining their party and the nation need to get started now.

— David Ignatius is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.


James Roberts 4 years, 7 months ago

And here we have an example of how the extremist right wing is becoming desperate and shrill, and also why they are becoming irrelevant.

Make no mistake, these right wing extremists hate America.

Lonesome Traveler 4 years, 7 months ago

And their continual argument is that Democrats are all socialist. Or at the very least that Obama is leading the country down a socialist path. Whatever that is.

Barbara Gordon 4 years, 7 months ago

They've basically turned "socialism" into an insult against anyone who wants a functional government.

Lonesome Traveler 4 years, 7 months ago

Empty vessels make the most sound. -- John Lydgate (c.1370-1451)

If someone gives you advice, it is in his own interest. -- Tunisian Proverb

Kevin Groenhagen 4 years, 7 months ago

I'll take that as a tacit acknowledge that you cannot address the points I made. Of course, we should expect little more from someone who openly violates the spirit of the J-W's new forum rules.

James Roberts 4 years, 7 months ago

Kevin, what about all the incivility you've displayed so far? I guess that doesn't count, huh?

Seth Peterson 4 years, 7 months ago

He tends to project,and ignore substance.

Scott Burkhart 4 years, 7 months ago

I'm only curious if the GOP "strategists" are the same group that helped McCain and Romney to win their elections? Oh, wait, they didn't win. Well Mr. Ignatius quoted David Plough and we all know he wants to help the GOP win. I don't know how much these "strategists" get paid to lose elections for their party but I can advise the GOP on how to lose, and charge a lot less money. I love the part where Carl Rove pulls out his dry erase board and lectures anyone that will listen on how to lose. His 15 minutes are up, too.

Richard Heckler 4 years, 7 months ago

For 33 years the right wing have been subverting the GOP. Once over thrown the Right Wing retained the GOP name and proceeded to masquerade as republicans. I say it is too late for the GOP to take the party name back. Waiting more than 30 years to decide is too damn late.

What happened? The ALEC Right Wing Party philosophy has permeated the the GOP as a radical minority. The entire Kansas delegation is ALEC controlled. Indiana,Florida,Ohio,Michiagan,Missouri,Wisconsin,Colorado,Kentucky and about 10 other states have become victims of ALEC. Once the beltway GOP was overthrown it has become a state by state endeavor.

United States of ALEC – Bill Moyers http://www.democracynow.org/2012/9/27/the_united_states_of_alec_bill

ALEC – The Voice of Corporate Special Interests in State Legislatures http://www.pfaw.org/rww-in-focus/alec-the-voice-of-corporate-special-interests-state-legislatures

ALEX EXPOSED – The Koch Connection http://www.thenation.com/article/161973/alec-exposed-koch-connection

ALEC – Ghostwriting The Law for Corporate America http://www.justice.org/cps/rde/xchg/justice/hs.xsl/15044.htm

ALEC EXPOSED http://www.alecexposed.org/wiki/ALEC_Exposed

ALEC Private Schools - Corporate Education Reformers Plot Next Steps at Secretive Meeting http://www.commondreams.org/view/2012/02/02-9

Knowing more about the enemies to public education, the working class and our communities is important. ALEC is public enemy number one.

Richard Heckler 4 years, 7 months ago

In essence what we have is a hostile takeover of the USA government.

Seth Peterson 4 years, 7 months ago

I don't think you know what socialist means.

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