GOP infighting shakes party
TAMPA - An increasingly fractious challenge to the Republican Party from its own conservative base could relegate the party to indefinite minority status, some Republicans fear. It's showing up in the form of conservative primary challengers against candidates blessed by the party establishment - a strange phenomenon in a party known for tightly controlled, wait-your-turn politics. Some Republicans fear the divisive primaries could leave GOP voters divided and dispirited, or push to the party so far right it alienates mainstream voters. "If you tried to devise a strategy for destroying the Republican Party in Florida, you couldn't do much better than this," said retired University of South Florida political scientist Darryl Paulson, a Republican and a former Heritage Foundation fellow."The kind of narrow appeal they're offering would almost guarantee Republicans would become the minority party in Florida," Paulson said. But some party officials say it's only part of the process of reordering the party's leadership and political priorities after a couple of disastrous elections. Members of the movement say it's the only way for the party to regain credibility as a conservative option in a time of Democratic dominance. "This has given us an opportunity to rediscover the roots of the party," said Marco Rubio, who is making national headlines with his challenge to Florida Gov. Charlie Crist in the Republican U.S. Senate primary. "The vast majority of Americans support limited government." Democrats relish infighting Democrats, meanwhile, relish watching the opposing party appear to self-destruct. The Florida Democratic Party, considering Rubio easier to beat than Crist, regularly sends out news releases highlighting attacks on Crist by Rubio or by other conservatives. "On the Republican side, we see a party that is narrowing geographically, that is narrowing ideologically and that is narrowing demographically," said Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, national Democratic party chairman, in a speech last week. He predicted that "corrosive primaries" among Republicans will help Democrats hold control of Congress in 2010. The signs of the conservative insurrection in Florida politics are multiplying: •State Sen. Carey Baker of Eustis, challenging U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam of Bartow in the primary for state agriculture commissioner, casts his race as a conservative "battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party" like Rubio's - even though Putnam has an established conservative reputation. •Conservatives, including Rubio backers, have challenged the leadership of state GOP Chairman Jim Greer, a Crist ally. •A tea party organizer, Orlando lawyer Fred O'Neal, has formed a political party he says will target Republican state legislators who voted this week for the SunRail project involving a state deal with CSX railway. They back SunRail opponent Sen. Paula Dockery of Lakeland, who is challenging Attorney General Bill McCollum for the GOP nomination for governor. •In the wake of a November visit to Florida by rightist talk-show host Glenn Beck, tea party activists inspired by Beck have filed to run in primaries against two of the state's most strongly entrenched GOP Congress members, C.W. Bill Young of St. Petersburg and Ginny Brown-Waite of Brooksville. Neither are known as moderates. Eric Forcade, a Pinellas County Sheriff's Office trainer and Marine Corps veteran opposes Young. He doesn't criticize Young but said he wants to push the party to right. "If we don't establish a progression to the right, the Republican Party will throw up whoever they want," he said. Jason Sager of Brooksville, a former audio engineer who lost his job to the recession and is challenging Brown-Waite said she doesn't meet his strict reading of the Constitution, which would outlaw many widely accepted government programs, such as Amtrak, the Environmental Protection Administration or "any form of economic stimulus." Sager said the last straw for him was when Brown-Waite supported moderate Republican candidate Dede Scozzafava in a special U.S. House election in New York in November. Conservatives won what they considered an important victory when Scozzafava withdrew after a severe bashing by conservative critics, ranging from former U.S. Rep. Dick Armey of Texas to former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. However, a Democrat won the seat over the independent candidate whom the conservatives preferred. Some in the movement consider the GOP almost as much of an opponent as the Democrats. "Across the nation, the Republican Establishment is supporting people who are not conservatives," Erick Erickson of the influential political blog RedState.com wrote this week, referring specifically to Crist. "I want to beat the Republican Establishment." Conservatives got more encouragement from a Rasmussen Research national poll a week ago that asked voters to assume an organized Tea Party existed and choose among three hypothetical congressional candidates - a Democrat, a Republican and a Tea Party candidate. The Democrat won with 36 percent, but the Tea Party candidate outpolled the Republican, by 23 percent to 18 percent. Fortunately for Republicans, most of the movement insurgents are mounting challenges within the party, in primaries, rather than as third-party candidates. Party-backed Senate candidates are being challenged in three states besides Florida. In California, Chuck DeVore opposes business executive Carly Fiorina. Senate leaders back Fiorina. Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who backs Rubio against Crist, backs DeVore. In Kentucky, the son of maverick presidential contender Ron Paul is taking on Secretary of State Trey Grayson. In Illinois, an anti-tax group backs a primary challenger over U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk. Similar challenges are occurring in governor's races in Arizona and California, and in numerous U.S. House districts around the country. Some Republicans say the party should follow the movement's lead. "Our challenge is to broaden the party by re-attracting conservatives," said Jim Bopp, a Republican National Committee member from Indiana. "More than 40 percent of American people consider themselves conservatives, but only 20 percent consider themselves Republicans." Bopp has proposed the RNC adopt a list of 10 policy positions officeholders and candidates must agree to, or be ineligible for national party support. 'Purity test' mocked Delighted Democrats and some Republicans mock that as a "purity test." "It's going nowhere," said Paul Senft of Polk County, a Florida RNC delegate. He said the positions are so general and vague as to be unenforceable. Senft said the conservative thrust is merely "growing pains as we heal and come back together. ... The Republican Party has a way to go to earn back the trust of the conservative wing of the party, and I think that will happen." State GOP Chairman Greer, the Crist ally, said that the party should resist focusing on "purity." "We have to balance our commitment to principles with inclusiveness," he said. Otherwise, he added, "You may be pure, but the party that is inclusive will be holding all the offices."
Reporter William March can be reached at (813) 259-7761.