U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is facing one of the biggest threats to any Republican incumbent today: potential primary opposition from the anti-tax Tea Party movement.
It’s the latest example of the challenges facing Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus as he works to make the party more stable and competitive, while also preventing a civil war between the leadership and the anti-government spending activist base that has provided the energy and campaign foot soldiers for its candidates.
Thus far, a path to achieve both goals remains elusive. When an RNC committee charged by Priebus with recommending changes to strengthen the party was asked yesterday what it could do to help McConnell, the highest ranking Republican lawmaker in Washington, the answer was: not much.
“I don’t think this group is going to make recommendations to the states to change their primary laws or how they select their candidates,” said Ari Fleischer, a White House press secretary under President George W. Bush who is on the five- member committee. “It’s a state-driven process.”
Tea Party primary threats are just one of many hurdles Priebus, 40, must confront after his re-election today to a second, two-year term at an RNC meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Members of the study group, formally known as the Growth and Opportunity Project, said they’re looking at how the party can recruit stronger candidates, appeal to a broader swath of voters, and develop better technology to compete with Democrats.
Exit polls of voters in the Nov. 6 election showed that President Barack Obama, in winning re-election, dominated Republican nominee Mitt Romney among single women, Hispanics, blacks and younger voters en route to carrying eight of nine states both camps viewed as the most competitive. Blunting those Democratic advantages is critical for Republicans’ future electoral prospects, as Hispanics are the fastest growing minority bloc of voters and the party risks losing much of an entire generation if they can’t appeal to young voters.
“We must compete in every state and every region, building relationships with communities we haven’t before,” Priebus said in remarks after his unopposed re-election. “We must be a party concerned about every American and every neighborhood.”
Before those fixes can take full effect, Republican leaders may be forced to deal with their internal fissures that have led to the nomination of candidates too extreme for independent voters.
“We realize what has happened in some primaries and we realize that we want to nominate candidates who can win a general election,” said Henry Barbour, a member of the Growth and Opportunity Project from Mississippi who is the nephew of that state’s former governor, Haley Barbour. “If we are not nominating candidates that can win in a general election, what business are we in?”
Losses by Tea Party-supported U.S. Senate candidates in Missouri and Indiana who drew controversy with comments about rape and pregnancy cost Republicans seats that appeared to be virtual locks a year before the election. When combined with similar defeats in 2010, many Republicans believe the primary fights that led to Democratic victories prevented them from gaining control of the Senate.
Tea Party activists today celebrated the decision of Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, who has sought a bipartisan budget plan, not to seek a third term in 2016.
Chambliss “led us down the wrong road by compromising our values” on issues including his support of the Troubled Asset Relief Program that provided federal bailout money for the financial industry, Jenny Beth Martin, the national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots, said in a statement.
“The grassroots revolted against him and we look forward to new leadership,” said Martin, whose Georgia-based group claims 3,400 local chapters nationwide.
Chambliss, in a statement on his website, said avoiding a primary challenge didn’t spur his retirement decision. “Instead, this is about frustration, both at a lack of leadership from the White House and at the dearth of meaningful action from Congress,” particularly on economic issues.
This week, the same pattern emerged when a coalition of Tea Party-aligned groups in Kentucky issued a statement “warning” McConnell against “co-opting” their movement.
“The replacement of elected officials not committed to and demonstrating the principles of limited government, free markets and fiscal responsibility is a mission of the UKTP,” the United Kentucky Tea Party said in its release targeting the fifth-term senator who is up for re-election in 2014.
Irate at McConnell’s legislative record and recent role in cutting tax-and-spending deals with Obama, leaders of Tea Party- affiliated groups met Jan. 12 in Kentucky to discuss recruiting a primary opponent for him. Yet nobody has come forward to target McConnell, 70, whose $6.8 million in campaign cash and formidable political standing has helped to dissuade would-be opponents.
Some Tea Party leaders in Kentucky say they’re reluctant to incite a Republican feud that might cost the party the seat.
“I am not sold on the idea of running a candidate against McConnell -- it’s a huge risk,” said Sarah Durand, president of the Louisville Tea Party, who refused to sign onto the UKTP statement.
That’s a sentiment that, if broadly embraced, may make the party’s transition and the work of the study committee easier. Along with Fleischer and Barbour, its other members are Zori Fonalledas of Puerto Rico and Glenn McCall of South Carolina -- both RNC members -- and political strategist Sally Bradshaw, a longtime consultant to former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.
At a news conference yesterday, the committee provided insight into the changes it may recommend in a final March report. It may call for less harsh rhetoric on issues such as abortion rights and immigration, although it won’t recommend changes to the party’s policies on those matters.
“On specific issues, that’s not for us to lead on,” Barbour said. “Elected officials and candidates lead on issues. I don’t see us getting into that.”
What the party can do, Fleischer said, is “create an atmosphere to help people recognize that things need to change” and that candidates need to “talk differently” and “act differently” when speaking about certain issues.
The committee also said it wants to be more aggressive in reaching into a diversity of communities.
“I think you’re going to see a very renewed, aggressive effort by this party to put on a different faces,” Bradshaw said. “We are going to go into areas we do not typically go into and seek votes that we do not typically seek. We have lost our way on personal contact.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, who attended the three-day RNC meeting, said his party “should go into every poor neighborhood in America and say, ’Surely we can do better than this.’”
He also said Republicans should launch a website that asks people “what are the dumbest agencies in federal government and let the American people crowdsource” answers.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, called on his party to “recalibrate the compass of conservatism.” He said Republicans need to “stop being the stupid party,” and that some of its candidates “damaged the brand” in 2012 “with offensive and bizarre comments.”
Jindal, the keynote speaker at the gathering last night, said the party “might need to change just about everything else” it does. He also called on it to shift its center from “number-crunching” on budget problems in Washington.
“Our objective is to grow the private sector,” he said. “We need to focus our efforts and ideas to grow the American economy, not the government economy. If you take nothing else away from what I say today, please understand this: We must not become the party of austerity. We must become the party of growth.”
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