There's No Republican Party—There Are 5 of Them

America's partisan battle isn't between Democrats and the GOP -- it's among different elements of the conservative movement.
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Across the nation, not just in Washington, there are ever more signs of a Republican Party veering to the right edge of the right wing of the political spectrum. With prospects for a comprehensive immigration bill fading, what will it take to bring the GOP back at least to the right edge of the center of the spectrum, to compete to win national elections on its own merits and not just when the Democrats fail or the economy falters?

American history has many examples of a party going off the rails and taking a long time to recover. It was true of the Democrats in the 1890s and again in the 1960s and early '70s. One rough rule of thumb is that a party has to lose three presidential elections in a row to make it clear that the problem is not just individual presidential candidates and their failures but something deeper, enough to motivate a party to move to expand beyond its ideological base and capture the center. But if that happens in 2016 -- if Democrats make it three wins in a row -- I am not sure it will be enough for the GOP.

That is because I see at least five Republican parties out there, with a lot of overlap, but with enough distinct differences that the task is harder than usual. There is a House party, a Senate party, and a presidential party, of course. But there is also a Southern party and a non-Southern one. The two driving forces dominating today's GOP are the House party and the Southern one -- and they will not be moved or shaped by another presidential loss. If anything, they might double down on their worldviews and strategies.

Let's start with the House and Senate parties. House Republicans have veered dramatically to the right in recent years, driven in part by the aggressively right-wing views, suspicion of leadership, and iconoclasm of many in the recent freshman classes. I have written before about the significant differences between House and Senate Republican approaches, reflected especially sharply in the "fiscal-cliff" vote several months ago. The last-minute deal created by Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell, which allowed taxes on the wealthy to return to pre-Bush levels, got 89 votes in the Senate, including all but five Republicans. But almost two thirds of House Republicans voted nay.

In part through redistricting, in part because of the "big sort," with Americans increasingly congregating in areas where they are surrounded by like-minded individuals, more and more House Republicans represent homogenous districts that tilt Republican. In the modern media age, their constituents get information from the same talk-radio and cable-television sources, and these modern media reinforcements tilt sharply right. For many of the lawmakers, they themselves believe what their constituents believe. For others, the consequences of voting in a different way are clear.

Although the Senate Republican Conference has some extreme ideologues, it has a much smaller share than its House counterpart. Why? Lots of states have significant heterogeneity, in partisanship, ideology, race, and ethnicity; statewide elections in more-competitive states create plenty of incentives to seek common ground or to appeal to a wider range of voters. True, the obduracy of Senate Republicans under McConnell -- the willingness to sabotage anything that might benefit President Obama and to use filibusters in unprecedented ways -- does not make the Senate GOP a bedrock of compromise and problem-solving zeal. But on issues ranging from immigration to farm policy to deficits and debt, pragmatism is far more prevalent in the Senate Republican Party than it is in the House.

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Norm Ornstein is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal, and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. More

Ornstein served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also serves as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future; The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann; and, most recently the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann.

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