Every political party is riven by factions that struggle for ideological dominance. For Republicans, this battle has traditionally played out between moderates and conservatives. But the Tea Party movement has so energized extremists that the battle lines in the Grand Old Party have shifted dramatically: It is no longer the center right vs. the right, but rather pragmatists vs. radicals, or the mainstream right vs. the far, far right. And with radicals helping to force a federal government shutdown, it is clear which faction is ascendant. GOP pragmatists have tended to avoid provoking right-wing activists in order to escape primary challenges. Yet as the shutdown persists, with unchecked radicals enthralled by the fever dream of a gutted Obamacare, it is far past the time for mainstream Republicans to get organized and fight back.
Radicals like to characterize Republicans who do not support defunding Obamacare as moderate “squishes,” but Republicans in Congress, moderates and conservatives alike, actually broadly support reforming Obamacare, if not repealing it outright. The difference is pragmatists recognize what is politically possible. “I’m all for getting change in to the Affordable Care Act, eliminating it, and doing something that’s more transparent and more market-oriented. But to create the impression that we can defund Obamacare when the only thing we control — and barely — is the U.S. House of Representatives is not intellectually honest,” Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) observed on the eve of the shutdown. (The senator has a lifetime American Conservative Union rating of 97.86 as of 2012.)
The fact is it would be unthinkable for the president to give in to radical Republican demands to defund Obamacare. It is arguably his signature policy achievement, so a reversal would be akin to President Reagan helping East Germany reinforce the Berlin Wall after calling for it to be torn down in 1987. It is not the sum of all evil and there is not an incredible groundswell of opposition to the program, as radicals seem to believe. Recent polling finds the country actually close to split on Obamacare, but that is based on the assumption that Americans fully understand it — an assumption that is belied by polling showing a 9% difference in support between Obamacare and the Affordable Care Act. And the policy has already survived a score of legal and political challenges. Thus, the president capitulating now would be political malpractice, setting an incredibly dangerous precedent that would incentivize government shutdowns every single year. It is no wonder that Senator Richard Burr (R-N.C.), whose lifetime ACU rating is 91.06, described the shutdown tactic as “the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.”
A chief reason why radicals exercise disproportionate influence in the Republican Party is the threat of primary challenges. Entities like Tea Party Express, the Senate Conservatives Fund, and the Club for Growth have proven very effective in supporting right-wing campaigns and toppling mainstream Republicans in primaries. For example, thanks to Tea Party support in 2010, Congressman Mike Castle (R-Del.), who was considered a lock for the U.S. Senate in the general election despite the fact that Delaware is a deep-blue state, lost a primary to thoroughly underwhelming Christine "I am not a witch" O’Donnell. Electoral history has thus proven that the bar for radical candidates is not set very high and ultimately, no Republican is safe.
But if the threat of primary challenges were to be defused, mainstream Republicans would be free to be more outspoken and actively work to counter radicals’ influence without fear of reprisal. To accomplish that, they need to get organized.
First, mainstream Republicans need to recognize that their radical counterparts are never going to play nice. It should have come as no surprise that Ted Cruz would refuse to renounce attacks waged on his colleagues by the Senate Conservatives Fund, tradition of collegiality be damned. Every defeat of a mainstream Republican in a contested primary further emboldens the radicals and inspires additional primary challenges. Thus, mainstreamers must be prepared to campaign and work on each other’s behalf — any one of them could be the next target for a primary.
Second, mainstreamers need to improve fundraising to defend themselves and support like-minded candidates. Money is the lifeblood of successful campaigns and radical Republicans have proven very effective post-Citizens United at tapping into a passionate donor base. Mainstreamers must therefore work to close this cash advantage gap as much as possible. To their credit, some have begun to work harder in that endeavor. For example, Main Street Advocacy and its allied super PAC, Defending Main Street, have pledged to raise and spend $8 million to defend Republican incumbents against challengers backed by the Club for Growth and similar groups in the upcoming election cycle.
Finally, taking advantage of these first two steps, Republican mainstreamers need to beat back radical primary challenges, plain and simple. Too many candidates have made the mistake of running lackluster, complacent campaigns. To be sure, radical candidates may always have an edge when it comes to supporter enthusiasm — the fringe inspires unique passion — but that can be overcome with smart campaigns. Ideas include the sharing of volunteers and donor lists and bringing on top-notch campaign operatives that can be deployed whenever and wherever they are most needed. Campaigns also have to step up opposition research on radical candidates and deploy event trackers to dog them 24/7. Politically disqualifying actions or words will inevitably emerge given enough time and pressure on less disciplined radical candidates. (Case in point: Richard “pregnancy from rape is a gift from God” Mourdock, who defeated incumbent Republican Senator Dick Lugar of Indiana in a primary yet fell to a Democrat in the general election).
For too long, mainstream Republicans have generally eschewed conflict with radicals, either due to fear or a misguided sense of civility. Consequently, radicals are running roughshod over the political battlefield, picking off pragmatic Republicans at their leisure and forcing a government shutdown with no strategy for the endgame. If the Republican Party is to ever regain the mantle of responsibility, mainstream Republicans need to fight back.