Inside the GOP’s backroom infighting sparked by Ted Cruz’s shutdown drama

Rabble-rousing senator pits upstarts vs. establishment

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When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell bumped into Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus near Capitol Hill recently, the discussion turned to the man who has become the undisputed public face of the government shutdown: Republican Ted Cruz.

The Republican National Committee staff was about to send an email blast urging the party faithful, and their wallets, to stand behind Mr. Cruz in his battle against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat. No one inside the RNC expected a backlash. After all, Mr. Cruz had become a hot commodity since his all-night filibuster on the Senate floor, and Mr. Reid has long been a favorite inspiration for Republican donors.

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But Mr. McConnell politely cautioned Mr. Priebus at their chance encounter, suggesting that the party chief should not look like he was taking sides in the tactical dispute between Mr. Cruz or other members of the GOP’s raucous tea party faction and the party’s congressional leaders. Mr. Priebus countered that he saw himself as chairman of the entire party and would support any Republican, including Mr. Cruz, in battling Democrats.

The RNC sent an unequivocal email soon afterward, under Mr. Priebus‘ name: “In a fight between Harry Reid and Ted Cruz, I will stand with Ted Cruz any day,” he said in the message, extolling Mr. Cruz’s anti-Obamacare efforts. “As Republicans, we must remain true to our principles and fight to protect the American people from this reckless law.”

Soon, establishment Republicans who had chafed for months about the ego, tactics and strident focus of the junior senator from Texas were on the phone to staff. They complained that the RNC was picking sides in an intraparty struggle between establishment leaders and a new generation of headstrong conservatives epitomized by Mr. Cruz.

The anecdote, related by multiple Republican insiders, offers the best evidence yet that the impact of the tea party wing on Washington goes beyond the federal shutdown, and increasingly is being felt behind closed doors, where struggle for control of the GOP has intensified. Mr. McConnell’s office said it disputed some aspects of the account, though it declined to be specific.

The upstarts

Unlike House Speaker John A. Boehner, an Ohio Republican who has often bent to conservative wishes under pressure, Mr. McConnell of Kentucky has struggled to harness a raucous wing of about 20 Republican senators and several dozen House members aligned with libertarian or tea party sympathies.

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The wing’s de-facto leaders are three relative newcomers — Mr. Cruz, Sen. Rand Paul and Sen. Mike Lee — and it has confounded political convention by relentlessly seeking to end Obamacare, even if it means defaulting on the nation’s debt — or hyperinflating the dollar — by failing to raise the debt ceiling.

To the horror of moderates and party leaders, this new generation of conservatives seems impervious to arguments that their campaign will set back GOP electoral ambitions in 2014, 2016 and beyond.

Jim DeMint, a former senator who now runs the Heritage Foundation, knows the type. He himself was one of the stubborn rabble-rousers when he served alongside Mr. Paul and Mr. Lee in the Senate, before stepping down.

“I would rather have 30 Republicans in the Senate who believe in principles of freedom than 60 who don’t,” Mr. DeMint said on leaving the Senate for Heritage.

Just how do party leaders confront such reckless abandon? The answer so far is: They don’t know. And it may be partly because traditional Republicans haven’t figured out what makes this new breed of conservative tick or what, if anything, can make them waver or relent.

A new star

Mr. Cruz has captured the hearts of many conservative ideologues with his relentless campaign to defund Obamacare. They say his do-or-die tactics have ensured that the health care law will be the 2014 elections’ centerpiece and that Republican candidates will have to stiffen their spines and campaign on repeal.

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About the Author
Ralph Z. Hallow

Ralph Z. Hallow

Chief political writer Ralph Z. Hallow served on the Chicago Tribune, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Washington Times editorial boards, was Ford Foundation Fellow in Urban Journalism at Northwestern University, resident at Columbia University Editorial-Page Editors Seminar and has filed from Berlin, Bonn, London, Paris, Geneva, Vienna, Amman, Beirut, Cairo, Damascus, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Belgrade, Bucharest, Panama and Guatemala.


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