GOP Establishment: How Do We Blunt Tea Party Effect?

Thursday, 07 Nov 2013 12:22 PM

By Sandy Fitzgerald

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Far-right tactics such the government shutdown are damaging the Republican Party, mainstream GOP leaders say, and many are looking for ways to change how candidates are selected in hopes of attracting votes and reclaiming the Senate, reports The New York Times.

Specifically, party leaders want to eliminate state caucuses and conventions that are held instead of primaries. Typically, the caucuses have drawn people who back what the party deems as more extreme, far-right candidates.

A more open primary system, leaders say, would draw a broader spectrum of Republicans to drive the vote.

For example, Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli in Virginia, who narrowly lost Tuesday to Democrat Terry McAuliffe, was chosen to run through a convention, rather than in a primary.

“Conventions by nature force candidates and campaigns to focus on a very small group of party activists,” said Phil Cox, executive director of the Republican Governors Association and a longtime Virginia-based strategist. “If the goal is actually to win elections, holding more primaries would be a good start.”

Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney last week also called for Republicans to consider how to overhaul their presidential nominating process, including holding open primaries.

The discussion reflects a power struggle between the tea party side of the Republican Party, whose members are seen as showing up more often for events like party conventions, and the mainstream, which sees key elections being lost when more-extreme party elements end up in unsuccessful races.

The party also is spending more than ever in states where tea party-supported candidates are making waves and possibly keeping other Republicans from winning. For example, in Alaska, the Republican National Committee is pouring unprecedented, extra resources into the state's upcoming elections, hoping to avoid losing to vulnerable Democratic Sen. Mark Begich.

"Nobody can remember ever putting this many resources into Alaska before," Republican National Committee spokesman Raffi Williams said. The RNC is opening offices in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau, reports Buzzfeed.

Fighting between Alaska's Republican establishment and its tea party leaders has led to three different chairmen taking the party helm over the past year alone. One never even took control, while another stayed in the post for only 10 weeks.

Three Republicans are running in Alaska'sprimary. Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan are considered more in the party's mainstream, while Joe Miller, a tea party favorite, is running once again. He won the GOP primary in 2010 but was defeated by Republican Lisa Murkowski, who ran in the general election as a write-in.

Begich defeated Sen. Ted Stevens in a close race in 2010, when the election was held one week after the senator, who had been in office for 40 years, was convicted on federal corruption charges — which later were overturned. Stevens died in a plane crash less than two years after his defeat.

Democratic National Committee spokesman Michael Czin said the party isn't concerned about Begich's seat, because he is well-liked, while the Republicans "are going to have a very brutal primary."

Nationally, control of the Senate hinges on a handful of races next year, and Republican leaders are worried about the outcomes of crowded primaries. In Iowa, for example, several untested candidates are in the heated Senate race for the seat being vacated by retiring Democrat Tom Harkin.

If no one candidate gets at least 35 percent of the primary vote, the nominee will be chosen in a convention, which has "a flimsy track record of selecting the most electable candidates," David Kochel, an Iowa-based Republican strategist, told The New York Times. "There’s just no good substitute for a full-scale vetting by a large universe of primary voters.”

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