Can Conservatives Fight a Two-front War?
What do you get when you cross a president with an underwater approval rating with an opposition party with an even lower approval rating?
Why, the 2014 election cycle, of course. It has the potential to be a watershed moment in the future of the American political landscape because, for the first time in the history of the movement, conservatives are attempting to fight a two-front war. Mounting unprecedented challenges to GOP establishment figures in primaries, while at the same time capitalize on the anti-Obama sentiment in the country to flip the U.S. Senate from Democrat to Republican control this fall.
But that begs the question: Once the squishy records of all these Republican establishment incumbents are laid bare in these primaries for the base to finally see, can that base still be rallied to support said squish this fall if they can’t beat him in a primary? Especially, since one of the rationales for launching these primary assaults on the GOP establishment is their candidates don’t offer voters a stark ideological contrast from the Democrats, but instead represent the “fraternal order of Republicans” Ronald Reagan used to bemoan.
Look at Mississippi, where conservative dissension over the establishment playing the race card against tea party champion Chris McDaniel in the U.S. Senate run-off there shows no signs of waning. Now the FEC is involved, and enterprising online muckrakers are using social media to blow the lid off a story the ruling class media has largely preferred to ignore. Mr. McDaniel won the majority of Republican voters in that run-off by 8 points, and polls show an overwhelming majority of that majority Republican vote isn’t happy about having the establishment basically hijack their primary by race-baiting Democrat voters to save Sen. Thad Cochran. As a result, plenty of McDaniel voters are currently telling pollsters they won’t support Mr. Cochran this fall, and would support Mr. McDaniel as a write-in or third party candidate come November.
Lest you think the rancor in Mississippi is an isolated incident. Over the weekend in my home state of Iowa, another prominent Republican fired a shot across the establishment’s bow.
Popular State Sen. Brad Zaun was the first place finisher in the 3rd Congressional District Primary on June 3, but failed to clear the 35 percent threshold necessary to win outright. Then Mr. Zaun lost a close vote at a nominating convention stacked with pro-establishment delegates to David Young, a former aide to Sen. Charles Grassley. Mr. Young finished a measly fifth in the primary, despite raising the second-most amount of money. On July 4, Mr. Zaun posted on his Facebook wall that plenty of his supporters want him to run as an independent this fall, and he is considering it. Almost 200 comments later, the responses were split 50-50 on whether Mr. Zaun should do something that would’ve had you excommunicated from the conservative tribe just a few years ago.
Then there’s Kentucky, where almost 126,000 conservatives voted for Matt Bevin instead of Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell in a hotly-contested primary on May 20. Mr. Bevin still hasn’t endorsed Mr. McConnell, who is virtually deadlocked with Democrat challenger Allison Grimes in the current Real Clear Politics polling average. My nationally syndicated radio show airs live for three hours each night in Louisville, and I’ve heard from more than one Bevin supporter who hopes Mr. McConnell loses this fall because “it would be easier to beat Grimes in six years than unseat an entrenched incumbent like McConnell in a primary.”
Again, that kind of talk would’ve been heresy just a few years ago. Now it’s increasingly more commonplace in a grassroots fed up with a D.C. that doesn’t listen. Will Democrats, who face bleak prospects this fall, be able to take advantage of a fracturing GOP to defy the odds? To get the answer, I asked several top conservative leaders around the country if it’s possible for conservatives to hold both Republicans and Democrats accountable simultaneously?
Dean Clancy is the former vice president of Freedom Works, one of the grassroots groups instrumental in organizing the primary challenge to McConnell. He told me “there is no outer darkness dark enough to banish McConnell to.”
“I don’t go along with those saying we should support McConnell in the general,” Mr. Clancy said. “Maybe the reason the tea party is having trouble this primary cycle is because we’ve basically won most of the issue fights, and having a GOP senate majority is essential to our cause.”
Richard Viguerie is one of the founding fathers of the conservative movement. He approves of both vigorous primaries to root out stale ideas and candidates, but then coming together to beat Democrats in the general election.
“Yes, the GOP can, should and will continue to conduct a civil war of ideas, values, policies and politics and yet in the November general election come together this year and in the future,” Mr. Viguerie said. “The alternative would put the left-wing of the Democratic Party in position to govern for years to come. Conservatives want to win the civil war of politics in the GOP, but by fighting this war we are also advancing and articulating conservative principles that will expand the GOP – and help save America.”
If you’re a Republican running for president in the first in the nation Iowa Caucuses, Chuck Laudner is one of the top grassroots activists/organizers you want on your team. He says walking the line Mr. Viguerie suggested is getting more difficult.
“I believe in supporting the nominee, but the fear of another four years of Obama didn’t get all conservatives to back Romney,” Mr. Laudner said. “You challenge an incumbent because you feel they have failed. Losing a primary doesn’t change that. Too many Republican incumbents despise their own base. So the further to the left those Republicans go the harder it is to build a majority without that base.”
How will this more confrontational environment play itself out in the 2016 GOP presidential primary once the 2014 cycle concludes? I asked former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who I believe is running for the nomination in 2016, how this will change the climate for potential candidates like himself.
While Mr. Huckabee is beloved by the social conservative base, he’s also upset tea partiers by endorsing establishment incumbents Mr. McConnell and Sen. Lamar Alexander in their primary challenges. Mr. Huckabee believes being what he calls “a full-spectrum conservative” is the way to transcend the current divisions within the GOP.
“Being pro-life, adhering to a traditional and Biblical view of marriage, and to a strong American place in the world shouldn’t frighten anyone,” Huckabee said. “I’m not sure why the media and the elites have painted full spectrum conservatives as the problem. We just don’t think it makes sense to make the tent bigger by throwing out the people already in the tent who helped build it, and who often stitched it back together when the half-spectrum conservatives tore holes in it.”
It’s too early to tell how this will eventually play out, but one thing is certain. What’s happening now is reshaping the Grand Old Party’s future — or determining if it has one.
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