Though years in the brewing, the internal fight over the direction of the Republican Party has exploded onto front pages and political talk shows this month after strategist Karl Rove announced the formation of a new political action committee designed to promote more electable candidates.
Fed up with what they see as a sellout of their small-government agenda and tired of Election Day disappointments, tea partyers and many conservatives are firing back.
The outcome of the battle will define the party and how it tackles everything from foreign policy to national security and immigration on Capitol Hill, where GOP leaders and tea partyers have been butting heads over taxes and spending.
“This is a fight,” Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, one of the largest branches of the grass-roots movement. “It is a fight between the people across the country who think they know how to live their lives best and pick their own representatives, against the establishment that thinks it can decide what is best for us through laws, regulations, political consultants and a political class who thinks they should deem who are the most winnable candidates in any given election.”
Mr. Rove, who was former President George W. Bush’s chief strategist through his two presidential wins, is the father of the new Conservative Victory Project, which is designed to provide a counterbalance for influential groups such as the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks that have bucked the GOP establishment on occasion.
Mr. Rove’s critics question whether the party needs leadership from an alumnus of the Bush administration, which oversaw ballooning deficits and the signing of a new entitlement, the Medicare prescription-drug program.
Craig Shirley, a Ronald Reagan biographer, said the internal fight goes back decades to the GOP’s presidential nomination battles in 1952, 1964 and 1976, which pitted moderates against conservatives, and reflects a sense among some conservatives that big-government Republicanism has run roughshod over their own limited-government philosophy — in particular during George W. Bush’s reign.
“Bushism,” said Mr. Shirley, “is closer to Obamaism than it is to Reaganism.”
In the two elections since Mr. Bush left office, conservative and tea party-affiliated candidates have pushed back against his allies in Congress, unseating some longtime Republican incumbents and helping choose their own brands of nominees.
But that’s also cost the GOP what likely would have been winnable Senate races in states such as Nevada and Delaware in 2010, and in Missouri and Indiana in 2012.
Mr. Rove, whose American Crossroads organization raised and spent tens of millions of dollars in the 2012 general election races, said his newest money machine will be an offshoot and will try to play a role in GOP primaries, supporting candidates he deems best equipped to win a general election and increase the party’s chances of winning back the Senate in 2014.
“We looked at our record over the last two election cycles and the efforts of center-right groups broadly, and a key finding is that we have lost somewhere between two to seven U.S. Senate seats not because of our message as a party or the conservative movement, but because of the candidates delivering this message,” said Jonathan Collegio, director of communications for American Crossroads. “Seeing this, it’s our goal to raise the bar on candidates’ quality across the board.”
But tea partyers see the group as an attack on their values, saying the party would never have elected the likes of Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky or Ted Cruz of Texas without them. Some major Republican figures also have balked.
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad said he told Mr. Rove to keep the new effort out of his political backyard.
Mrs. Martin’s tea party group sent out a fundraising message — for which they later apologized — featuring a doctored photo that cast Mr. Rove as a Nazi and read “Wipe the Smirk Off Karl Rove’s Face.”
And Judson Phillips, leader of Tea Party Nation, questioned Mr. Rove’s own political skill at picking electoral winners, saying that donors to American Crossroads would have been better off investing with Bernie Madoff, the man behind the largest Ponzi scheme in history.
“I think Karl Rove should take a long overdue retirement back to his home in Texas, where he should not be seen or heard from again,” Mr. Phillips said.
Amy Kremer, Tea Party Express chairwoman, said Mr. Rove’s effort threatens to “water down the brand” because he is willing to support “RINOs” (“Republican In Name Only”) as long as it edges the party closer to a majority.
Mrs. Kremer said she would rather have had Christine O’Donnell stick to her principles and lose her 2010 Senate race in Delaware to Democrat Christopher A. Coons than to have had Rep. Mike Castle, a moderate, win it.
“He is willing to sacrifice principle for power, and we are not going to sacrifice on that,” Mrs. Kremer said. “There are Republicans that are just as responsible as Democrats are for this out-of-control spending, and we need people who are willing to rein it in.”
But Fred V. Malek, a former assistant to Presidents Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush, defended Mr. Rove’s latest political venture as a way to maintain the GOP’s viability as a national party.
“If you are going to have a majority, you are going to have to have some pragmatism and realize there are states where a moderate candidate is the only candidate that can win and that candidate is going to be a hell of a lot more conservative than the Democrat that is going to be elected,” Mr. Malek said. “I go back to what Ronald Reagan said. I don’t expect people to agree with me 100 percent of the time, 75 percent is just fine. I would much rather have senators or congressmen that are labeled as moderate Republicans than have a Democrat who agrees with me 10 percent of the time.”
H.W. Brands, a history professor at the University of Texas, said the current fight reminds him of the battle between the Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller wings of the party in the 1960s, which “was wasn’t resolved until Reagan came along.”
“The takeaway from that for this fight is that the quarrel doesn’t really end, but can be papered over by a charismatic candidate,” Mr. Brands wrote in an email. “If the Rs had nominated a more appealing candidate last summer they would have won in November and wouldn’t be having this fight. Winning cures lots of ills — at least temporarily. But the purist-pragmatist dispute is always with us. It’s the essence of politics.”