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 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 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.”

But most party loyalists seek to placate and explain the Tea Party fervor, and to urge the rebels back into the fold. Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman and George W. Bush aide, said he understood where they were coming from. “A lot of them are new to the process,” Gillespie told me. “They weren’t Young Republicans or College Republicans. They didn’t come up through Republican clubs, and they feel that the Republican Party in the past has not fought hard enough or stood firm enough on these issues.”

Gillespie chalked the tensions up to the party being out of power and lacking a unifying leader; he pointed to similar dislocations in the past, including Ross Perot's third-party candidacies in the 1990s. “I would rather have them trying to shake up the existing party than run as third-party candidates—that would be completely self-defeating,” he said. “We live in a two-party system in the United States. If you’re going to translate your ideas, your beliefs, your principles into policy, it’s got to be done through the electoral process, and that involves participating in a political party.”

Gillespie and others said party institutions have been weakened by changes in campaign-finance law. (The ostensible head of the Republican Party, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, did not respond to requests for comment for this story.) They noted that the pragmatists and the Tea Partiers don’t disagree on policy, only on what tactics will make the most progress possible toward goals like reducing spending and reversing Obamacare. And they pointed out that conservatives stand little chance of winning elections outside the two-party framework—though their pleas for unity signaled an awareness that Republicans might be equally crippled by the loss of their ideological base.

“Everybody understands standing your ground, hoisting your flag, and making your stand, but at some point, you have to decide if your stand is sustainable,” said Ari Fleischer, the former George W. Bush press secretary. “A lot of people who got elected in 2010 came to Washington as conservatives, not as Republicans. They came to change what was wrong in Washington—they don’t have the same expectations or practical goals as others.” But as for the threats of deserting the GOP, Fleischer said, “I don’t know what that means. Are they going to start a third party? What’s the chances of success for that?”

Some establishmentarians worry the Tea Partiers are already blithely driving the GOP into the ground. “I don’t think they care about the party. I think they care about issues and philosophies,” said Tom Davis, a former congressman from Virginia and onetime chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “I have a philsophy, too. But parties are coalitions. What they would like is for the party to be a private club with a litmus test .... The party they would design would be a regional party that would not be viable in many parts of the country.”

Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor and Republican presidential candidate, blamed “gerrymandered districts” and “the political news-entertainment complex” for empowering passionate minorities within both parties. “If you’re a libertarian or a Tea Partier, you tend to be skeptical toward anything viewed as the establishment, so to the extent you view the traditional Republican Party as the establishment, it follows that there’s room for skepticism,” he said. “But neither party can be successful unless they can get a reasonable amount of support from the whole coalition.”

In the Tea Partiers’ view, the clueless establishment hasn’t yet internalized the seriousness of the threat to its supremacy. The grassroots has taken control, and it will have its way or secede. “This is where the wind is blowing,” Deace said. “I don’t think you can put Humpty Dumpty back together again. People like me are not just taking marching orders anymore—they actually want something in return for a vote.”

It will not be possible, Deace predicted, for the two factions to coexist. “This is going to end in divorce,” he said. “One side is going to win control, one side is going to lose, and the losing side will go do something else. There will not be a reunification.”