1. Florida Politics

GOP seeks a focus

Published Aug. 10, 2013


Nine months after a second consecutive failure to win the White House forced calls for introspection and the need to address the country's racial and ethnic changes, Republicans are torn by a series of crosscurrents.

The tea party, not long ago written off as a dying fad, is resurgent and pressing its all-or-nothing ideological purity against emerging signs of pragmatism — a clash captured last week at a town hall in North Carolina.

An activist asked Republican U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger of Charlotte if he would join an effort to force a government shutdown if Obamacare is not stripped of funding.

"Would you like to hear a thoughtful answer?" replied Pittenger, who has joined repeated attempts to derail the law.

"I want yes or no."

"No," Pittenger said, explaining the brinkmanship would fizzle in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

"It doesn't matter," a woman fired back. "We need to show the American people we stand for conservative values."

Amid a rising libertarian challenge to foreign policy hawks and disagreement on a range of issues, from immigration reform to climate change, Republican voters are split on whether the party should get more conservative or more moderate.

"The GOP is like a barge that is having tugboats push on it from all directions," said Jamie Miller, a Republican strategist in Florida. "There's not one super apparent way forward and that's the problem."

Republican leaders fear the lack of focus — and a favorable GOP climate in the upcoming midterm elections — could mean lessons from 2012 are ignored.

Sen. Marco Rubio embodies the opposing forces.

The Florida Republican and possible 2016 presidential candidate helped write the Senate's immigration reform bill and got scorched by conservatives, not just for working on the legislation but for working with Democrats. Rubio is now helping lead the government shutdown threat, a move popular among the tea party groups he turned off on immigration but deemed reckless by mainstream Republicans.

"When do you realize that your stupidity is getting in the way of conservatives winning national elections?" Republican commentator Joe Scarborough said on MSNBC last week, referring generally to the hard-liners Rubio was eager to align himself with. "You've lost a popular vote five out of six times in presidential races. Do you want to lose the next five or six? Do you really want Hillary Clinton to be president for the next eight years?"

• • •

Democrats have been here, losing a trio of presidential elections in the 1980s before Bill Clinton marched them back to the center in 1992. The GOP's current challenge is exacerbated by demographics: White male voters are declining as a share of the electorate as minority groups rise. Mitt Romney won nearly 60 percent of the white vote last year and still lost as President Barack Obama maintained his coalition of African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, women and young voters.

The defeat prompted widespread calls for a new course. The Republican National Committee produced a 97-page report that laid out ways to move forward, from tackling immigration reform to going into communities "where Republicans do not normally go" to softening rhetoric toward gay voters.

But the "Growth and Opportunity Project" remains on the sidelines as the right wing of the party punches back and lawmakers continue to focus energy on Obama in the upcoming elections.

In Washington, Texas and other state houses across the country, Republicans jumped back into the divisive abortion debate, allowing Democrats to resuscitate the "war on women" attack that proved effective in 2012.

"My concern is Republicans are going to make the judgment that President Obama is weak and 2014 will be a good year to make congressional gains," said Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center who served in the past three Republican administrations. "But that could have the effect of stalling out some of the larger things the party has to do to win national elections."

A new Pew Research poll illustrates the crosscurrents. Sixty-seven percent of Republicans say the party needs to address major problems, but 54 percent said the party should take a more conservative direction while 40 percent said it should take a more moderate turn.

"We're still sorting it out," said Keith Appell, a conservative strategist. "It's healthy to have these battles but at some point we have to declare who we are and start to move forward. It may take us another election to get there."

Appell is in the sizable camp that thinks the calls to moderate polices are misguided. The party should solidify its conservative message, he and others argue, focusing on economic issues, the national debt and family values.

"We let Democrats define who we are. They did a masterful job of saying we were anti-this or anti-that," said Alice Stewart, who has worked with Republican presidential candidates Mike Huckabee and Michele Bachmann. "We need to remind people that this is what we stand for and not waver. Party leaders are getting soft on some of these issues and if they keep doing that, we'll be a bunch of Democrats."

One of the sharpest disagreements among Republicans has come over national security.

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who has been an outspoken critic of the government's intelligence gathering, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who follows the post-9/11 tough-on-terrorism outlook, got into a nasty public fight last month that reflected a growing divide between isolationists and defense hawks.

Paul's libertarianism, which Christie called "dangerous," has found footing in the House, where a large number of Republicans joined with Democrats in a vote that came close to reeling in the National Security Agency. Earlier this year Paul gained widespread attention for a filibuster over the use of drones.

"It's the mood of the country," said Paul, who is considering a run for president and has attracted some of the youthful support that his father, former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, did in two bids for the White House.

• • •

Miller, the Florida strategist, candidly acknowledges in an interview about the direction of the GOP that he's "part of the problem, not the solution."

"People like me and politicians make short-term decisions that affect their immediate career," he said, "and that's not necessarily reflective of great, long-term policy."

That helps explain the struggles over immigration reform. Many House Republicans resist going along with a sweeping plan that provides a path to citizenship for people who broke the law to get here and face little pressure from voters at home. Thanks to gerrymandering, there are few competitive House districts.

More than 80 percent of Republicans have constituencies that are 20 percent or less Hispanic. So if appealing to Hispanics is good for the long-term of the GOP, it isn't an obvious short-term play. Why would a Republican in a mostly white district take the political risk of embracing a path to citizenship for immigrants?

"We will never elect another president if we don't figure out a way to attract more nonwhite voters," said GOP pollster Whit Ayres.

Immigration still faces a struggle in the House, but there are flickers of movement on the bill. The harsh rhetoric that has surrounded the issue before, turning off Hispanic voters, has died considerably. When Rep. Steve King of Iowa last month said young immigrants have "calves the size of cantaloupes" because they carry bundles of drugs across the border, he was roundly rebuked by House Speaker John Boehner and others.

While many Republicans still oppose gay marriage, the issue is fading as a concern on Capitol Hill, too, and that could help draw in young voters who overwhelmingly support same-sex marriage.

"Sometimes it takes a while," said Ayres. "But we learn. That's progress. I am convinced the Republicans are but one election and one candidate away from resurrection."

Contact Alex Leary at aleary@tampabay.com.


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