WASHINGTON — The rift in Congress between moderate Republicans and tea party conservatives grew wider than ever during the government shutdown, and left the establishment wing of the GOP yearning for a center-right revolution of some kind.
Traditional Republican allies like the Chamber of Commerce and Wall Street have begun to reevaluate their donation strategy; more moderate candidates are starting to challenge sitting conservative members in a few districts across the country; and groups like the Republican Main Street Partnership are gearing up to try and provide cover to members attacked by hardline conservative groups like Heritage Action and Club for Growth.
But competitive districts — where moderates tend to thrive — are becoming a thing of the past thanks in large part to redistricting. And that means an uphill battle of a primary for any moderate candidate who tries to challenge a conservative member.
Asked whether a moderate Republican movement could really materialize, former Rep. Steve LaTourette, who now is the president of the Main Street Partnership, was cautiously optimistic.
"It's possible; it's going to be difficult and it's not going to happen overnight. There is an appetite for it but it remains to be seen if we can get to there from here," said LaTourette. "Some of the well heeled donors and the money people in the Republican Party are rethinking about directing that money to people who can actually govern. We're getting a lot of calls and interest at Main Street, we have a big meeting up on Wall Street in November. So we will see, we are up against some well entrenched organizations."
The shutdown fight began with tea party heroes like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas insisting that Congress needed to defund Obamacare in order for government funding to move forward. The end result was an all-out war of words between the factions of the GOP and in-the-tank poll numbers for Republicans. The tea party wave handed Republicans in Congress a House majority in 2010, but many in the GOP now worry the push to the right — and the deep divide within the party itself — have given Democrats an opening in 2014 that they would not have otherwise had. Because of redistricting, the fear is that Republicans who hold seats in competitive districts will bear the brunt of voter's ire, while tea party Republicans from safely red seats have nothing to worry about.
"The problem is the voter backlash will be in districts that are competitive. Out of 435 districts, there are probably less than 50 that are competitive," said moderate former GOP Rep. Sherry Boehlert.
"I think the message is loud and clear from the American public to the Republicans is if you've gone too far, we'll reject you," he added. "The American public is not wedded to any particular party … It's not until to death do us part, it's until stupidity separates us."
Republican strategist Rick Wilson said that Republicans need to stop focusing on each other so much and start working together to defeat Democrats instead of trying to fight a war on two fronts.
"Moderates worry about being liked. Conservatives worry about purity. Moderates have endless plans and no heart. Conservatives have no plans and endless heart," he said in an email. "I hate to be the cliché 'pox on both their houses' amoral consultant, but this is like the Allies in WW2: suck it up, put your differences aside, and fight against the Axis. The business community would be much, much smarter to try to make an alliance than go to war."
LaTourette, who came into Congress during the Newt Gingrich revolution, said for all of his faults, it was Gingrich who provided a wider tent for Republicans across the spectrum to win.
"Newt Gingrich, to his credit, recognized that in order to have a majority you have to represent the entire country. The movement was: We need to find candidates that best reflect their districts rather than a certain ideology. To my mind there has not been an organized effort now to do that," he said.
Republicans in both chambers have been critical of the shutdown, especially the way Cruz and others pushed for defunding of Obamacare even though it was an impossible goal.
But Cruz and other conservatives have promised to keep fighting — and have warned establishment Republicans who may try and stand in their way. Cruz said on ABC Sunday that it was Senate Republicans who abandoned House Republicans in the defund Obamacare push and did not rule out blocking government funding again in the future over the health care law. An outside group supported by Cruz, the Senate Conservatives Fund, endorsed primary challengers to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran just last week.
Rep. Aaron Schock said he believes the shutdown's ugly ending for Republicans could put them in more of a mood to be agreeable to compromise.
"Part of it is when your tactic doesn't work, when your strategy doesn't work, you lose credibility in the conference. And clearly the leadership followed certain members' tactics, certain members' strategies, and they proved to not be all that successful. And I would hope that we would learn from the past and employ different strategies and tactics in the future," Schock said last week.
Schock said that his leadership needs to abandon conservative rabble rousers who are unwilling to compromise or face Washington's reality.
"News flash, we're not going to get everything we want. We're not going to get everything that we want if we have 218 or 230 Republicans vote for something in the House, because at the end of the day, its got to be moderated with the Senate. At the end of the day, Republicans don't control Washington, D.C," he said.
LaTourette says part of the work at Main Street will be to provide cover to Republicans who are attacked from the right for not holding an ideologically pure line.
"They'll call you a RINO [Republican In Name Only] and that's not a good message to have on the airwaves," LaTourette said of conservative outside groups. "They tend to eviscerate the center right candidate and we end up with these Manchurian candidates instead."