New York Times
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Jan 26, 2013
CHARLOTTE, N.C. » The next round of Republican primary fights is not far away, which prompted Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana to offer a blunt warning this week: "We've got to stop being the stupid party."
With bruising defeats from the past two election cycles still fresh in his mind, particularly the races that helped cost Republicans control of the Senate, Jindal's stern message to his party highlighted the divisions among Republicans as they try to restore their brand and rebuild.
The critiques that many Republicans have about their party are rooted in the divisive primary campaigns that have knocked out veteran lawmakers, only to produce flawed candidates who have uttered highly charged statements that have alienated a wide swath of voters.
The challenge was highlighted anew Friday as Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., announced his intention to step down next year. In doing so, he avoids a contentious ideological battle that has toppled several fellow Republicans seen in Washington as steady and valuable members of the party's mainstream.
The difficulties facing the Republican Party are framed by Jindal's urgent plea, which he delivered here Thursday evening to a meeting of the Republican National Committee, and the retirement of Chambliss. Chambliss had faced bracing criticism — and a possible primary challenge on his right flank — for his work with Democrats to find a bipartisan deficit reduction plan that would have included added tax revenues as well as spending cuts.
Party elders also argue that the recurring fiscal brinksmanship in Washington has been wrongheaded for Republicans, who often seem willing to risk the nation's economy simply to get their way. At the same time, some Republicans expressed dismay at the inability of conservative House members to see the end-of-year tax deal as a victory since it made permanent nearly all the Bush-era tax cuts, although it raises taxes on the most affluent.
Republicans also came under criticism this week for what some saw as clumsy and ill-informed questioning of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton during hearings on the attack on the diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., initially questioned whether Clinton's emotional response at the Senate hearing to the four U.S. deaths was manufactured to duck questions. He later said he should not have speculated, but some conservatives applauded the aggressive line.
The competing schools of thought illustrate the conflicting currents pulling the Republican Party in opposite directions: Even as Jindal and an array of leaders are encouraging the party to temper its tone and appeal to a broader set of voters, its core conservative voters continue to punish Republicans who do just that. For his deficit negotiations with seven other senators, Republican and Democrat, Chambliss had raised the ire of Tea Party groups and other conservatives, who actively promoted primary challenges.
Reince Priebus, who was re-elected Friday to a second term as chairman of the Republican National Committee, said it was imperative for the party to expand its appeal to a wider cross-section of voters. He said the party did not need to dilute its principles but should raise its tolerance.
"There is one clear overriding lesson from November: We didn't have enough votes," Priebus said. "We have to find more supporters. We have to go places we haven't been and invite new people to join us."
The message is complicated by the divisions inside the Republican Party, which were underscored in Georgia, where Chambliss faced potential challenges from Rep. Tom Price, a leading conservative voice in the House, or Karen Handel, a former Georgia secretary of state who lost her run for the governorship, despite the backing of Sarah Palin.
In his retirement announcement, Chambliss expressed confidence that he would have beaten such foes, even as he voiced his frustration that compromise was increasingly impossible in Washington.
"I have no doubt that had I decided to be a candidate, I would have won re-election," he said. "Instead, this is about frustration, both at a lack of leadership from the White House and at the dearth of meaningful action from Congress."
Party leaders debated the future of the Republican Party with an air of humility after losing the White House and seats in the House and Senate. In interviews here over the past three days, the state officials said they intended to try to bring more discipline to the primary campaigns in 2014 to avoid ending up with a nominee who has little hope of winning in a general election.
They widely applauded Jindal's admonition to the party.
"He's right," said Lenny Curry, chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. "We have allowed the message to get out that the Republican Party is the party of no and doesn't care about diverse groups of people. It's just nonsense."
But the conservative groups that have fueled such primary challenges have shown little willingness to back down. The Tea Party movement is watching the fiscal debate carefully and already is placing Republicans on notice.
Jenny Beth Martin, the national coordinator and co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, who is based in Georgia, said she was Chambliss' 2008 re-election chairwoman in Cherokee County, an outer suburb of Atlanta.
After his vote for the Wall Street bailout that year, she said she could not get Republican activists to take her yard signs. Her own husband refused to vote for him. With Chambliss' work on the deficit, conservative activists turned on him en masse, she said.
"Georgia's a solid Republican state where the people elected as Republicans should be sticking with the principles of fiscal responsibility," she said. "When you increase the debt limit, when you raise taxes and haven't cut even a single penny, that's not responsible."
Martin, whose group has actively sought primary challengers for Republican veterans, bristled at Jindal's criticism of candidates like Richard Mourdock of Indiana and Todd Akin of Missouri.
But others in the party latched on to Jindal's entreaties.
Tom Davis, a former congressman who once headed the Republicans' House campaign arm, said the problem went beyond the party's failure to win over minority voters. Educated and affluent suburban voters who were once the Republican Party's backbone have drifted to the Democrats, he said. In their absence, the party is attracting a more populist, less educated core.
"Everybody says it's changing demographics. It's not just that," Davis said. "A lot of former Republicans are voting Democratic."