The Conservative War on the GOP

What was once an uneasy alliance between Tea Partiers and Republican loyalists is increasingly marked by hostility—and many on the right now want a divorce.
Julio Cortez/Associated Press

On his radio show recently, Glenn Beck urged his listeners to “defund the GOP.” Sarah Palin has threatened to leave the Republican Party; Rush Limbaugh calls it “irrelevant.” The Senate Conservatives Fund has targeted mainly incumbent Republican senators for defeat. Erick Erickson, one of the right’s most prominent commentators, wonders if what's coming is “a real third party movement that will fully divide the Republican Party.” 

Conservatives have declared war on the GOP.

Tired of feeling taken for granted by a party that alternately panders to them and sells them down the river, in their view, Tea Partiers and others on the right are in revolt. The Republican Party itself is increasingly the focus of their anger, particularly after Wednesday's deal to reopen the government, which many on the right opposed. Now, many are threatening to take their business elsewhere.

“Conservatives are either going to split [from the GOP] or stay home,” Erickson, the influential editor of RedState.com and a Fox News contributor, told me. “They’ll first expend energy in primaries, but if unsuccessful, they’ll bolt.”

Erickson, a former Republican elected official in Georgia, stressed that he wasn’t advocating such a split, only foreseeing it. “I think the GOP is already splitting,” he said, with grassroots activists feeling “played” by elected officials’ unfulfilled promises to defeat Obamacare.

The calls for a split mark a new, more acrimonious chapter in the long-simmering conflict between the Tea Party and the Republican establishment. Steve Deace, an Iowa-based talk-radio host, said his audience has never been angrier. “They’re tired of electing a bunch of Republicans who care more about what the media thinks about them than what the people who elected them think,” he told me. “Why do I care whether John Boehner or Nancy Pelosi is the speaker of the House? Why do I care whether Harry Reid or ‘Ditch’ McConnell is the Senate majority leader? What changes? Nothing changes.”

To Deace, “political-party disintegration” is on the horizon. And he’s not alone: Sean Hannity, on his radio show on Monday, said he’d previously opposed a third party, but “I’m not so sure anymore. It may be time for a new conservative party in America. I’m sick of these guys.” Ann Coulter’s new book is titled Never Trust a Liberal Over 3—Especially a Republican. Groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund and Heritage Action wear their contempt for GOP elites as a point of pride, and spend the bulk of their resources campaigning against rather than for Republican officeholders.

The Republican establishment, these conservatives say, doesn’t seem to understand that the Tea Party isn’t a wing of the GOP. “It’s an autonomous force,” said Jenny Beth Martin, national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots. In emails and conversations across the country, Martin told me, she’s hearing more rumblings about taking the Tea Party out from under the GOP than ever before, though the organization hasn’t taken a position on it. “When either party is doing the right thing, the Tea Party stands with them," she said. "And when either party is doing the wrong thing, we hold them accountable.”

The recent government shutdown, and the infighting it laid bare between Republican factions, convinced many conservatives that the institutional GOP would rather sell them out than stick up for them. “There are two views on the right. One says more Republicans is better; the other says better Republicans is better,” said Dean Clancy, vice president of public policy for the Tea Party group FreedomWorks. “One view focuses on the number of Republicans in the Senate, the other on the amount of fight in the senators.”

When Beck made his appeal to "defund the GOP," he told his listeners to stop giving money to Republican committees and give to FreedomWorks instead. "We kind of agree," Clancy told me. “Giving to the party committees is wasted money, because they’re just incumbent protection clubs .... Sometimes you have to beat the Republicans before you beat the Democrats. Just because they're 'our guys' doesn’t mean they'll be our guys when it counts."

Dissatisfaction within the ranks appears to be one driving factor in the record-low approval numbers recorded for the Republican Party in several recent polls. A Gallup poll last week, for example, found just 28 percent of Americans had a favorable opinion of the GOP, the lowest level of support in the two decades Gallup has asked that question. Among Republicans, 27 percent saw their party unfavorably—twice the percentage of Democrats who held a dim view of their own party.

To some Republican institutionalists who have long seen the Tea Party as a destructive force, the talk of a schism merely confirms what they've always suspected—that these activists are a radical, destabilizing force, nihilists devoid of loyalty. Some, like the renegade moderate David Frum, urge the Tea Party to go ahead and leave: “Right now, tea party extremism contaminates the whole Republican brand,” Frum wrote on CNN.com this week, wondering “whether a tea party bolt from the GOP might not just liberate the party to slide back to the political center.” Representative Charles Boustany of Louisiana lashed out at his intransigent colleagues Wednesday, telling National Journal, “I’m not sure they’re Republicans and I’m not sure they’re conservative.”

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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