The Republican right/far-right civil war is the guiding narrative for the party in 2014. So it's fitting that the first big skirmish of the year — Arizona's "religious freedom" bill — should have been part of that bigger war. In this case, the establishment won.
On Wednesday night, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed her state's version of the legislation, which would have allowed businesses to refuse services to gay couples on religious grounds. Similar legislation has cropped up in other red states, including Kansas, South Dakota, Idaho, and Mississippi, and even in more-moderate Ohio. As Brewer considered whether or not to kill the bill, Republicans of all stripes weighed in, including a number of prominent party leaders. Both of Arizona's senators, Mitt Romney, and Newt Gingrich all got on Twitter to offer their advice: kill it. And so it was killed.
As The New York Times reports, those leaders were speaking partly on behalf of the constituency most freaked out at the prospect of the bill becoming law: businesses. A number of local and national companies expressed concern about its passage, including the Super Bowl committee. But the politicians were also hoping to hold off another front in the war splitting the party. The Times:
The decision by members of the Republican establishment to join gay activists in opposing the bill reflected the alarm the Arizona battle stirred among party leaders, who worried about identifying their party with polarizing social issues at a time when Republicans see the prospect of big gains in Congressional elections on economic issues.
There's a lot in that paragraph. Part of the concern expressed in it goes back to the 2010 and 2012 elections, in which a surging Tea Party and a complacent establishment resulted in extreme candidates running for — and losing — Senate seats that the Republicans could have picked up. The broader civil war, though, broke out in the wake of the government shutdown, pitting the pro-business Republican right against the my-way-or-the-highway extreme right. The shutdown's tension focused on the debt ceiling, in which conservatives threatened to allow the government to default on its debt in the mistaken belief that it would slow government spending. That was the point at which the establishment began to fight back.