GOP split runs through the heartland, endangering election prospects

McClatchy Washington BureauOctober 31, 2013 

— The bitter divide among Republicans over an ill-fated budget fight that shuttered parts of the government reaches far beyond the Congress and Washington, deep into the heartland and smack into the Machine Shed restaurant.

“At what point do you sell your soul for a win?” asked Jim Carley, a retiree from Altoona who wants his party to take tough, uncompromising stands on key principles, such as repealing the Affordable Care Act and sharply cutting government spending.

Wrong question, countered Vinita Smith, a retiree from Panora. Sometimes compromise is an important means to your end.

“No one is more pro-life than I am,” she said. “But the most important vote you make is the first vote of a new Congress,” she said, when lawmakers vote for leaders. Accept a Republican who may have a conciliatory streak, this thinking goes, because a Republican majority means a Republican House speaker or Senate majority leader.

Smith and Carley were among a group of Iowa Republicans who gathered at the Urbandale, Iowa restaurant in the Des Moines suburbs to talk about the state of their party with McClatchy and TheIowaRepublican.com, a website. McClatchy also talked last week to other key Republicans around this bellwether state, a state whose political trends will provide strong hints of what’s to come nationally in 2014 and 2016.

They talked in the wake of a partial shutdown of the federal government triggered by conservative Republicans’ insistence that the Affordable Care Act be diluted or defunded and Democrats’ refusal to negotiate the issue. Polls showed the public blamed Republicans far more than Democrats.

The Iowa Republicans lined up much the same as Republicans in Congress _ purists itching for a no-holds-barred fight vs. pragmatists who see politics as the art of compromise.

The pragmatists see electoral as well as policy disasters. The more candidates are viewed as ideologically extreme, the less likely they are to win general election _ just look, they say, at how tea party favorite Ken Cuccinelli is far behind in what should be a winnable Republican race for governor of Virginia. And the more Republicans are not willing to give in, the less Democrats will need to seek their support, lessening the chance of much compromise.

The purists argue theirs is a mission that may not yield immediate success but will someday lead to dramatically smaller, more responsive government and candidates unafraid to tout strong moral values.

The philosophies will be tested quickly in this state. In the Senate, Iowans have a rare open seat as Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, retires after five terms. Republicans see a once-in-a-generation opportunity to pick up the seat, but so far, party rifts are hurting efforts to unify behind a strong candidate.

At the same time, the 2016 presidential campaign has unofficially begun in the state that will hold the first test of the contests for both the Republican and Democratic nomination and could be a general election battleground as well. A bellwether, the state went to President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, and to George W. Bush in 2004.

Would-be candidates already are finding a Republican organization split between tea party activists and libertarians dueling with more establishment leaders, as in much of the rest of America.

Incumbent Republican senators face nomination challenges from the right in several states, notably Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, Lamar Alexander in Tennessee, Lindsey Graham in South Carolina and Pat Roberts in Kansas. In 2010 and 2012, some of the insurgents won primaries but found it hard to escape the extremist label. That allowed otherwise underdog Democrats to get elected.

Fading quickly is the party’s once-promising bid to pick up a net of six Senate seats needed for a majority. Last week, Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, moved two key races, North Carolina and Louisiana, from the “Tossup” to the “Lean Democratic” column.

“The shutdown kerfuffle has led to a significant improvement in the national political climate for Democrats,” he wrote.

In Iowa, the pragmatists worry the purists have not gotten the message that their strategy was a flop. “The purity people don’t see it,” said Myrna Beeber, a Yale, Iowa, retired nurse.

Instead, the diehard conservatives see themselves on a long crusade that began more than 50 years ago with the candidacies of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.

“You just need somebody that just wants to stand their ground and protect freedom and liberty,” said Michelle Bockenstedt, a farmer from Manchester.

Iowa party leaders, considered sympathetic to the tea party and libertarian wings, have been similarly defiant.

“There are some in the old guard in the Grand Old Party that don’t approve of the kind of principled leadership being shown by the new conservative leaders” such as Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah, said Iowa party co-chairman David Fischer at a GOP dinner last week.

That kind of talk makes Ryan Frederick, a real estate appraiser from Adair, recoil.

“The first job of a political party (organization) is do no harm. We have too many folks who don’t get that,” he said.

Lamented Nik Rule, director of university relations at William Penn University in Oskaloosa, “They’re not necessarily worried about winning.”

Sure we are, insisted the purists. But it was telling just how deep this division goes that the McClatchy discussion group reached back five years to illustrate what’s gone wrong.

“John McCain would have been no better than Obama,” argued Michael Young, a Des Moines rental manager, citing the 2008 Republican presidential nominee. He and others in Iowa never regarded McCain as pure enough, and today they’re angry at him for criticizing Cruz and others who took a harder line against Obamacare.

“I want someone with principles to stand up for constitutional values,” said Carley. As an example, he called for repeal of the 17th Amendment, which established direct election of U.S. senators. Perhaps, the thinking goes, senators elected by legislatures would not serve as long.

What about Iowa’s Sen. Charles Grassley, one of Washington’s most powerful conservatives?

“I’d give up a good person if we could put more good people in,” said Carley.

That’s nonsense, said Tim Newman, an Adair Republican. “You’re never going to get perfection in Washington, D.C.,” he said.

The way out of this muddle, said Rule, is to focus on issues that unify Republicans.

“In six weeks health care will still be going on. It’s the only card we have in our deck that is not going away. We try to focus on too many issues that are divisive in our party rather than issues that will invigorate our grassroots,” he said.

But there wasn’t a lot of optimism that harmony was nigh. “If a split like this happens in your family, you try to fix it,” said Beeber. “But so far, there doesn’t seem to be any way to fix this.”

Email: dlightman@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @lightmandavid

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