Can Big Business wrest control of the GOP back from the Tea Party?
For decades, the Republican Party has cast itself as the business-friendly party, pushing for lower taxes and less regulation against the Big Government Democrats. Big Business has generally agreed, with groups like the Chamber of Commerce overwhelmingly sending campaign contributions to the GOP.
The Tea Party has complicated this relationship. The interests of the Tea Party and Chamber of Commerce are aligned on things like taxes and regulation, but businesses like predictability and stability, and the Tea Party is trying to rock the boat. This tension is coming into stark relief during the government shutdown and run-up to hitting the U.S. debt limit. The business community fears breaching the debt ceiling particularly, and many Republican lawmakers, increasingly, don't.
Now, "nearly three years after a band of renegade congressmen brought the Tea Party insurgency to Washington, there are early rumblings of a political backlash in some of their districts," says Philip Rucker in The Washington Post.
Rucker highlights four House Republicans — Reps. Justin Amash (Mich.), Kerry Bentivolio (Mich.), Scott DesJarlais (Tenn.), and Walter Jones (N.C.) — against whom "some business leaders are recruiting a Republican primary challenger who they hope will serve the old-fashioned way — by working the inside game and playing nice to gain influence and solve problems for the district." That's a "notable shift in a party in which most primary challenges in recent years have come from the right," Rucker notes.
This is "a new dynamic, and we don't know how far it's going to go," former Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn) tells The Washington Post. "All the energy in the Republican Party the last few years has come from the Tea Party. The notion that there might be some energy from the radical center, the people whose positions in the conservative mainstream are more center-right but who are just furious about the dysfunctionality of government — that's different."
It's also bogus, says Slate's David Weigel, at least based on Rucker's "smartly conceived" but unconvincing analysis. First of all, "four members in trouble does not equal much of a backlash in a 233-member conference," and the only one who really fits Rucker's premise is Amash.
DesJarlais is doomed because he cheated on his wife and counseled his mistress to have an abortion, Jones has been in Congress since 1995, and Bentivolio is widely referred to as the "accidental congressman," because he only won when the GOP incumbent unexpectedly imploded.
It's true that the establishment challenge against Amash could be an isolated case, says Neil Irwin at The Washington Post. But it's also true that "what happens over the next year in Republican primaries will be the most telling thing for determining the future of the party, and governance of the United States more broadly."
And it wouldn't take a ton of those candidates running and winning to change the tenor of the caucus. A handful of high-profile losses would change the asymmetry problem facing Republican lawmakers if they began to conclude that they could just as well face a primary challenge for being too absolutist and extreme as they could for being too weak-kneed and compromise-oriented.
All that said, so far the business-oriented, pragmatic wing of the Republican coalition has done more private grumbling about their Tea Party brethren than outright intraparty warfare. The question for 2014 is whether the current shutdown and debt ceiling crisis pushes them to actually recruit and fund candidates — and whether Republican primary voters in at least a few districts buy the pitch those candidates are selling. [Washington Post]
That last point seems to be the main impediment to a recapturing of the GOP's id by Big Business.
The underlying assumption here is that Republican primary voters are essentially being forced into voting for Tea Party candidates, rather than actively choosing them over more mainstream GOP candidates. If that were the case, Ted Cruz wouldn't be a household name, and the well-financed establishment candidate he beat in the GOP primary, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, would probably be Texas's junior senator, playing nice with Big Business.
Daniel Larison at The American Conservative points out another impediment to a Big Business takeover. "Because the Chamber of Commerce leans so heavily toward the GOP," Larison says, "Republican politicians may conclude that they can ignore some of its complaints without provoking the group to shift more of its support to the other party."
The fretting from the more moderate, business-friendly wing of the Republican Party also overlooks an important point: The GOP establishment has ceded control to the Tea Party as much as the Tea Party has seized it.
Right now, "the most dangerous group in Congress is moderate Republicans, says Josh Barro at Business Insider. These House Republicans, many of them from the Northeast, "could reopen the government and break extremists' grip on their caucus's agenda, but choose not to." There are enough votes in the House to pass a "clean" continuing resolution.
Yet these Republicans who publicly say they favor a clean CR have repeatedly voted with their extremist colleagues to prevent it from coming to a vote.... The entire House Republican caucus is responsible for its shutdown-based legislative strategy. The only difference among the members is that Tea Party conservatives have the decency to admit what they're up to. [Business Insider]