- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 29, 2013

If New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has any chance of securing the Republican presidential nomination, he just might have to thank such darlings of the tea party movement as Rand Paul and Ted Cruz for an unlikely path to victory.

As Mr. Paul’s and Mr. Cruz’s recent filibusters on the Senate floor have shown, the 2016 quest for the White House is well underway. A fierce battle among the new small-government, libertarian stars is already raging.

That has left a growing number of conservative activists voicing concerns publicly about a scenario that would let a moderate Republican like Mr. Christie slip through the cracks of a movement divided between such strong conservative personalities as Mr. Paul, Mr. Cruz and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

“It seems like a broken record every four years: a number of conservatives run against one or two ‘moderates’ — apparently there’s no such thing as a liberal Republican — the conservatives cancel each other, and the ‘moderate’ ekes out a primary win,” lamented Media Research Center President L. Brent Bozell.

Pollsters see the same scenario in 2016 based on current data.

“The pattern in recent cycles suggests that the GOP will ultimately settle on a more ‘establishment’ candidate as a result of a continued split among conservatives,” pollster and campaign strategist Matt Towery said.

PHOTOS: Conservatives fear another split Republican vote, with path for Christie win

An adviser to Mr. Christie, speaking only on the condition of anonymity, told The Washington Times that the New Jersey governor recognizes that a split electorate in 2016 could play to his advantage and is part of the reason his name remains on the short list of suitors for the primaries.

The debate reflects an ongoing tension between the Republican Party establishment, which has produced moderate mainstream presidential candidates such as Mitt Romney and John McCain in the past two elections, and the more fervent wing of tea party activists and take-no-hostages conservatives, who yearn for a more ideologically ardent nominee who reflects their values.

Splitting the right

In 2012, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry and Ron Paul wooed conservatives with similar appeal, diluting the right’s electoral power and opening the door for Mr. Romney to carry the GOP standard to eventual defeat in November.

Mr. Romney, a moderate when he governed Massachusetts who crafted a state health care law that became a blueprint for Obamacare, made himself acceptable to a plurality of Republican primary voters by running to the right of his earlier agenda. He seized uncharted territory as a hawk on U.S. military intervention, a critic of Mr. Obama’s health care plan and an ardent critic of illegal immigration — then spent much of the campaign defending himself against charges he had become a flip-flopper.

Many conservatives say Mr. Romney’s strategy illustrated that moderate Republican presidential nominees running in the guise of conservatives almost invariably get defeated by Democrats.

Mr. Bozell said it happened in 1996 with the nomination of Bob Dole, who lost the general election to President Clinton, then in 2000 and 2004 George W. Bush won by running as a conservative who bashed big-spending and big-government liberals. It happened again in 2008 with Mr. McCain losing the general election to Barack Obama and in 2012 with Mr. Romney losing to Mr. Obama.

“In most cases, the GOP nominee went down in flames in the general. And why not? He never had the support of the GOP base,” said Mr. Bozell. “‘W’ was the exception, and I would suggest it was because he was perceived as a conservative.”

Moderates have a different theory, arguing that the Republican Party’s inability to win a presidential election since 2004 is because the party is hostage to its right wing and viewed as too extreme for mainstream America.

Looking for a winner

Moderates see hope in two recent polls. One showed Mr. Christie, who is looking for a crushing re-election win in his reliably blue New Jersey to burnish his credentials as a viable, big-tent Republican on the national stage, has taken a 34-percentage-point lead in the race against Democratic gubernatorial candidate Barbara Buono.

A Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday has Mr. Christie up 64 percent to 30 percent, but the Republican governor’s backers are even more excited about the 36 percent he is pulling from black voters, who have never given a Republican gubernatorial candidate more than 17 percent of their vote.

A poll by Gallup showed the number of Americans identifying themselves as supportive of the tea party plummeted from a high of 32 percent in 2010 to 22 percent today.

But another poll shows tea party favorite Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas surging to the front of the pack of would-be GOP nominees. In a Public Policy Polling survey taken after Mr. Cruz’s 21-hour marathon anti-Obamacare speech last week, he was the choice of 20 percent of Republican voters, followed by Mr. Paul with 17 percent and Mr. Christie in third with 14 percent.

Some Republican strategists say a hard-core conservative could seize the populist vote by focusing on issues such as freedom, privacy and liberty that appeal to young and old, left and right.

“Conservatives should not listen to the establishment about who they say can win,” said Republican media adviser Diana Bannister. “No one, not Karl Rove nor any other Republican insider, knows what can possibly happen in a general election. A strong conservative can be elected if he or she effectively communicates a vision based on liberty.”

Mr. Towery said the usual divisions among conservative Republican primary voters could open the door for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to emerge as a compromise candidate, in part because of the critical role Florida has earned in the nomination process. But conservatives haven’t been rushing to line up behind Mr. Bush, whom they see as moderate on immigration and who carries a family name that is suspect with voters.

Mr. Towery also sees possibilities for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, an evangelical Protestant who some conservative purists think is soft on immigration, crime and spending. “Huckabee might be a ‘meeting in the middle’ of all forces,” said Mr. Towery. “He could bring a touch of likability back to the Republicans, something they have lacked since G.W. Bush.”

A change of fortunes

Mr. Bozell expects that 2016 will be different — and more successful — for conservative Republicans for three reasons. “First, the GOP base is fed up with GOP moderation and after the monumental disappointments of McCain and Romney at the presidential level, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in the Senate, and House Speaker John Boehner and his leadership team in the House, the base will have no appetite for another moderate.”

Mr. Bozell said the second reason is that in 2016 there will be a “bumper crop of excellent conservative challengers” who will be far more attractive to the base than those in 2012. “Any one of them could catch fire with the GOP base,” he added.

Mr. Bozell thinks conservatives are willing to unite behind an early favorite. “These are tipping-point times for our nation. Conservative challengers will be far more willing to set aside personal ambitions in favor of a united front than any time in the recent past.”

Conservative author and direct-mail fundraising pioneer Richard Viguerie understands the risks of another moderate slipping through a primary where conservatives are divided. But he sees some reasons for optimism in the rise of a new breed of conservative focused more on libertarian issues and opposition to big government, and believes more such candidates will win office in 2014.

“While it certainly is a possibility that if, as expected, there are numerous top-tier conservatives running for president in 2016, and only one moderate Republican running, that a big-government candidate could once again sneak though,” Mr. Viguerie said. “However, I think it’s highly unlikely. “The limited-government, constitutional conservatives are experiencing almost exponential growth. I expect that after the 2014 congressional elections, tea party, boat-rocking conservatives will clearly dominate the Republican Party and the 2016 presidential nomination contest.”

• Ralph Z. Hallow can be reached at rhallow@gmail.com.

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