Much has been written and said about the so-called GOP civil war between the tea party and Republican Party regulars. The media and the Democrats are salivating over the prospect of a permanent war between the tea party and the GOP. As an active member of both the tea party and the GOP, I submit that we cannot let this happen. Both of these political entities need each other to survive and thrive.
The GOP needs the energy, innovation and dedication to first principles of the tea party. And the tea party needs the infrastructure, resources, institutional knowledge and name identification of the GOP. Sure, many tea party folks are independents, and many independents fall outside the GOP. That’s okay. Many independents also identify with the GOP. This healthy mix of different people and ideas is normal within our two party system. And these folks who share a common belief in limited government, fiscal responsibility and free markets have more in common than that which divides them.
Now, admittedly it is fair to say that the tea party would not exist but for the fact that the GOP strayed from its principles. But it’s also fair to say that the tea party would not have made such a huge impact in the 2010 elections were it not for the infrastructure and resources of the GOP. The tea party is there to remind the GOP of its principles, and the GOP is there to remind the tea party that only candidates from one of the two major parties actually wins elections.
There is a healthy tension and battle for supremacy going on right now within the conservative movement and the GOP – which are not the same thing. This is nothing new, and previous battles over ideas and the path to victory have raged in just about every decade since the beginning of the modern conservative movement in the 1950’s. When the tea party asks, “What good is winning if we abandon our principles?” – the tea party is right. And when the GOP says “What good are our principles if we don’t win” – the GOP is right too. We need to find the right combination of both, and perhaps there is a way to find common ground where everyone wins.
The Scott Brown campaign for U.S. Senate in January, 2010 provides an instructive example that we can look to for guidance. In that race, the Massachusetts Republican candidate was more moderate than most tea party-backed candidates. But all that mattered to the GOP and the tea party was trying to stop ObamaCare and electing the one candidate who could win that would vote against ObamaCare. Those cold few weeks in Massachusetts bore witness to hundreds of people driving up there to work for Scott Brown. And it was the tea party that led the fight up there.
Yes, many Young Republicans, moderates, GOP regulars and others flocked to Massachusetts for the election, but it was the tea party that nationalized the race and galvanized folks to give money, knock on doors, make phone calls from home and put out yard signs for Scott Brown. Conservatives and GOP regulars were united around a common goal of electing the most conservative candidate who could win in Massachusetts – and who would vote to stop ObamaCare. We knew we may differ with Brown on various issues, but we united behind him because he was good enough for what we needed to do – stop ObamaCare. We did not spend time focusing on our differences, but we joined hands against a common foe, and for our shared values.
On the flip side of this, where tea party candidates have won their elections to the U.S. Senate and House, they have also been heavily supported by Republican regulars. Yes, there usually was a tough primary battle, but there usually is. Once candidates like Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Pat Toomey and Ron Johnson won their primaries, the GOP regulars got behind them and considered them leading voices in the Republican party. (Charlie Crist’s selfish, embarrassing run as an “independent” notwithstanding.) GOP regulars have generally embraced these tea party stars who have energized so many people in their states and around the country. If those GOP voters who were not originally for Rubio, Lee, Paul or Cruz in the beginning had stayed home in protest, these candidates would not have been elected to the U.S. Senate.
The moral of the story is that the tea party and the GOP regulars need each other. The tea party now makes up anywhere from 30-60% of the GOP, depending on the state, how you define a tea party voter, and how you ask the question. This tea party revolution has been institutionalized inside the GOP. In some places the tea party has taken over the machinery of the party. In others, the GOP has absorbed the energy of the tea party. There are good things and bad things about this situation, but in the end things will work out if we let them.
The GOP regulars and the tea party folks are very similar in terms of ideology, age, income, geography, gender and other attributes. It’s striking actually, because very little separates the tea party voter from the GOP regular voter except for marginal differences in approach, ideology and voting history. Both groups are fiercely opposed to big government, are solidly pro-life, and want to cut spending and balance the budget. The differences are marginal, but big enough to cause a battle for the hearts and minds of the conservatives, libertarians, social conservatives and moderates that make up the modern Republican Party.
So let us continue to debate ideas, battle for control over precincts, county party leadership, convention delegates and the best candidates to carry our banner. But let’s not lose sight of the common values we share and the common political opponents that motivate us to fight for what we believe. Competitive primaries are healthy, so let’s have it out and may the best candidates win. Then, let’s shake hands and fight together in November. There will be plenty of time after the 2014 midterm election to continue our struggle within the GOP. 2016 beckons.
Brendan Steinhauser is a national political strategist focused on campaigns, media, and public policy.