The GOP's How-to-Talk-to-Women Training Won't Solve Its Biggest Problem

A congressman from Virginia launched an internal campaign to block support for gay candidates. House leadership is running a program on how not to offend women. The GOP war between economic conservatives and social ones is just getting underway.

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A Republican congressman from Virginia has launched an internal campaign to block the House caucus from supporting gay candidates. House Republican leadership is running a program to train candidates on how not to offend women voters. These are signs that the internal GOP war between economic conservatives and social ones is just getting underway.

Virginia Rep. Randy Forbes isn't tightly tied to the Tea Party, but his extreme social conservatism is unquestionable. According to Politico, Forbes "waged a lengthy crusade to convince his colleagues and the [NRCC] brass they shouldn’t back some gay candidates," several sources said, though Forbes himself vaguely denied it. Forbes has been prominently featured at events hosted by several socially conservative or anti-gay organizations, including the American Family Association. "In recent years, Republicans have slowly tried to make inroads with the gay community," Politico notes, as gay marriage becomes more broadly accepted. Forbes' effort, however robust, moves that internal fight into the spotlight.

The party's tension over its relationship with women is more urgent. In 2012, conservative Rep. Todd Akin became the party's nominee for the Senate in Missouri — and ultimately lost after making baffling comments about pregnancy and rape. Now, according to another Politico report topped with a picture of Akin, House leaders are explicitly training members in how to talk about the issues. The NRCC is "meeting with top aides of sitting Republicans to teach them what to say — or not to say — on the trail, especially when their boss is running against a woman." One staffer summarized the effort for Politico: “Let me put it this way, some of these guys have a lot to learn."

Individual Republicans have continued to give Democrats plenty of ammunition about being insensitive to women’s issues. … Yet Republican incumbents appear eager to avoid the mistakes of some of their predecessors.

Rep. Scott Rigell, who won his Virginia seat last time by about 1,000 votes and is running against a Democratic woman next year, said he wants to focus on economic issues, not social issues.

And that's the tension. It's the debate within the party between the traditional establishment — business interests, moderate-right social conservatives — and the far-right activists comprised of Tea Partiers and more extreme social conservatives. Republicans have increasingly been forced to pick sides, as we've noted, thanks to the rupture that emerged in the wake of the government shutdown. Republicans largely held together during the 2010 and 2012 election cycles, when extreme candidates tanked the party's ability to retake the Senate, but the fissure became unavoidable during the government shutdown. When the far-right flirted with federal debt default — putting those business interests at risk — the war to shape the Republican Party was on. And the battlefield will be the 2014 primaries.

The business-focused Chamber of Commerce, which historically deferred from getting involved in primaries, has begun to weigh in, like in Alabama in November, when it successfully backed a less-extreme candidate for the House. The Associated Press reports the Chamber will also run ads in Idaho and West Virginia to help Republican primary candidates that are willing to put the business agenda ahead of the social one.

As the Republican Party is well aware, one of the main reasons that it lost multiple Senate races in 2010 and 2012 is that social conservatives and the Tea Party activists with whom they often overlap are energized and vocal. Forbes' internal advocacy in some ways mirrors the campaign of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz against Obamacare — a last ditch, futile effort that is nonetheless worrisome for the party because of the loud support he's likely to engender. The Republicans ignored its split over the last two election cycles because it wasn't worth risking the fury of the base. With 2014 looming, it clearly feels it can't ignore the tension once again.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.