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.

What about the presidential party? It should be more like the Senate, but the nature both of the ideological media wind machine and of the primary and caucus process have moved it sharply to the right as well. The shrill, over-the-top op-ed written by presidential hopeful Bobby Jindal recently in Politico is telling. So is Marco Rubio's willingness to consider carrying the water of antiabortion forces to promote a Senate bill to ban abortions after 20 weeks.

Now come the other two parties. The House votes on the fiscal cliff, aid for victims of Hurricane Sandy, and the Violence Against Women Act showed a fascinating regional pattern. Of the 151 GOP nay votes on the fiscal cliff, 82 came from Deep South Republicans -- 87 percent of all the Southerners, compared with 47 percent of the non-Southerners. (Border South Republicans are a lot like the deep Southerners.) Of the 67 nay votes on Sandy, 31 came from Southerners. And of the 138 Republican nay votes on VAWA, 79 came from Southerners. Southern Republicans as a whole, not just those in the House, reflect a distinctly different political framework, culture, and attitude than others. If one looks at the loony statements made by political figures over the past couple of years, some may come from the likes of Michele Bachmann and Steve King, but more come from Southern GOPers like Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas, Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, and assorted state legislators and party chairs.

What happens when there is overlap between, say, the Senate GOP and the Southern one? Look at Republican Senators Lamar Alexander, John Cornyn, and Thad Cochran, who are up for election in 2014. Alexander, for example, in his uncharacteristically harsh partisan rhetoric and support for a range of filibusters on executive and judicial nominations, has become more the Southerner than the senator this year.

The South has gone from being a trace element of the Republican Party in the 1950s and 1960s to becoming the solid base and largest element of today's GOP -- and its driving force on social and economic issues. And while some Southern Republicans such as Lindsey Graham remain fierce internationalists, the South, and the House, have become the epicenter of anti-defense and anti-diplomacy isolationism typified now by border Senator Rand Paul.

So here's the Republican dilemma: The House and Southern Republican parties are more concerned with ideological purity and tribal politics than they are with building a durable, competitive national party base to win presidential and Senate majorities. In most cases, they are in no danger of losing their House seats or their hegemony in their states. They will be resistant to changes in social policy that reflect broad national opinion; resistant to any policies or rhetoric, including but not limited to immigration, that would appeal to Hispanics, African-Americans, or Asian-Americans; and resistant to policies like Medicaid expansion or Head Start that would ameliorate the plight of the poor. They also will be more inclined to use voter-suppression methods to reduce the share of votes cast by those population groups than to find ways to appeal to them. I see little or nothing, including a potential loss in 2016, that will change this set of dynamics anytime soon.