Poised for gains, Republicans also face identity crisis

Republicans are poised to do well in the midterm elections. But afterwards, they will have to address the tug-of-war between "establishment" conservatives and the more controversial Tea Party wing for the soul of the party.


With a couple of weeks left before anxiously awaited US midterm elections, the predictions are in: Republicans will likely win enough congressional seats and governorships to make life tough for President Obama and his Democrats. As Sarah Palin declared at a recent gathering of Republicans in California, “Soon, we’ll all be dancing!”

But after what may be a night of celebration on November 2, the party could wake up to a harsher reality. If analysts are correct and Republicans take control of the House of Representatives and gain ground in the Senate, they will have to address what looks increasingly like an identity crisis: the mostly unspoken tug-of-war between “establishment” conservatives and the newer, rowdier, more controversial Tea Party wing.

The success of Republicans in capitalising on greater numbers in Congress - and in having a viable shot at taking back the White House in 2012 - will depend in large part on their ability to reconcile the different factions within their ranks.

Sizing up the Tea Party

Traditional Republicans have looked upon the rise of the Tea Party movement with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Influential conservative commentators such as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck widely credited Tea Partiers for injecting new energy into causes such as low taxes and limits on federal spending. Some Republican leaders, such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, have argued for a “big tent” approach that would welcome all right-leaning ideas.

But the “tent” would have to be very big indeed to accommodate moderate Republicans like Olympia Snowe of Maine - who crossed party lines to vote for Obama’s stimulus package - alongside Tea Party-backed Republican Senate candidates like Sharron Angle of Nevada or Christine O’Donnell of Delaware. Angle has, in the past, argued for the elimination of the Department of Education and alluded to the constitutional right to bear arms as a conceivable response to an over-reaching federal government. O’Donnell is most famous for taking a public stance against masturbation while a Republican activist in the 90s.

Faced with such candidates running for office under the Republican banner, some of the party’s leaders have withheld endorsements. There has been fretting in establishment Republican circles – voiced by strategists such as Karl Rove – that candidates such as Angle and O’Donnell are too extreme to be electable, especially by crucial and much-courted “swing voters” (who tend to be moderate). High-profile Republican figures have also been embarrassed by reports of Tea Party rallies at which racially charged language was used and signs comparing Obama to Hitler were brandished.

Part of the Republican establishment’s concern stems from their awareness that, given evolving US demographics, any significant shift to the right will become an obstacle to future electoral success – in the 2012 presidential election and beyond. “Hispanics are a growing part of the electorate, and they favour Democrats. Young voters and educated professionals are also trending Democratic,” explained John Fortier, political scientist at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, in an interview with “Republicans are now the dominant party in the 65 and over age category, but that means that as senior citizens pass away, they will be replaced by younger, more Democratic voters”.

A marriage of convenience

For now, though, the Republican establishment and the Tea Party movement are locked in an often uneasy bond of mutual need: Republicans want the Tea Partiers’ spark and momentum (Sarah Palin recently warned that if it strays too far from the Tea Party movement, the Republican party “is through”), while Tea Partiers are boosted if given access to Republican money and strategists.

Moreover, certain Tea Party-backed candidates, such as Sharron Angle in Nevada, have a good shot at winning and would therefore be serving alongside more moderate colleagues in Congress. Consequently, Tea Partiers and traditional Republicans seem to be adjusting to one another in the common quest for votes leading up to the November 2 election. Candidates like Angle and O’Donnell, as well as Senate contender Rand Paul in Kentucky, have toned down their harder line positions in an effort to fend off accusations of extremism. Meanwhile, incumbent Arizona Senator (and 2008 presidential hopeful) John McCain, once considered a moderate Republican, toughened his positions on immigration and climate change to beef up his conservative credentials in a primary against Tea Party-endorsed J.D. Hayworth.

But John Fortier says that the greatest difference between Tea Partiers and mainstream Republicans is not on substance, but on “style and tactics”. After all, he explained, establishment conservatives “generally agree with the Tea Party Republicans that they should stand for smaller debt, deficits, and government”. Where the two factions will have to find common ground is in how to present their opposition to Obama and his Democrats. More decorous old-timer Republicans “may be more cautious about the level and type of confrontation they will have with the president”, whereas feisty new Tea Party members “may want a bigger confrontation”.

A gain in Republican-held congressional seats also means that Republicans will have to unite around common policy ideas that satisfy both wings of the party and present US voters with an alternative to left-leaning proposals. If not, they risk perpetuating the Democrats’ damning characterisation of Republicans as “the party of ‘no’”.

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