In years past, the fact that Senate and House GOP leaders meandered their way to the Republican Main Street Partnership gathering this weekend in Florida’s picturesque Amelia Island would hardly raise an eyebrow.
After all, the group is run by one of their own, retired Rep. Steve LaTourette of Ohio, a close ally of Speaker John A. Boehner, and the retreat is the classic junket staged during a congressional recess. Republicans usually would be looking to stage a show of unity in a midterm election year that is trending their way.
But 2014 has proved to be different, as a long-simmering anger on the right side of the Republican Party has fomented a larger coalition of conservative ideologues, tea party crusaders and grass-roots activists determined to put a stop to what they see as a decadelong liberal drift to their party.
The result is that this year’s Main Street meeting has become a flashpoint for battle-ready conservatives looking to make examples of lawmakers who attend a group with moderate views and funded by Democrat-leaning labor unions.
“It’s basically the big-business, cheap-labor wing of the Republican Party — not the mom-and-pop store owners, the startups, the entrepreneurs, the small-business people,” said independent Ron Maxwell, a motion picture director and writer who lives in House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s home state of Virginia.
Mr. Maxwell can barely suppress his ire toward what he regards as the pragmatic liberal and centrist GOP lawmakers who are heading to the meeting Saturday at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on Amelia Island, Fla.
To the rank-and-file conservatives, the biggest sin of Main Streeters’ like Mr. Cantor, Sen. John McCain, Mr. Boehner, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy and others is that the group they are endorsing with their presence over the years gangs up on the likes of Sens. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Mike Lee and tries to isolate them as extremist obstructionists.
The Main Streeters jump on the brash new conservative icons of the Senate for opposing compromises viewed as giving Democrats approval to expand spending, national indebtedness to other nations and increased dependency on government by businesses, the middle class, blue-collar workers and legal and illegal immigrants.
Whether they use the words or not, the rank and file see the GOP leadership in Congress and the former GOP governors, party chairmen, corporate elite and top-echelon consultant class as co-conspirators in the Democrats’ socialization of the American economy and culture.
“The Main Street Republicans have become an echo chamber for the left,” said Mr. Maxwell, uttering a battle cry spoken privately by many others. “They correctly see grass-roots conservatives and the tea party as the authentic base of the GOP and therefore a threat to the levers of power that the party’s behind-the-scenes leaders — the Bushes, Karl Roves and Haley Barbours — control.
“They’re terrorists in their own party. They label Republicans who don’t agree with them as extremists,” said Mr. Maxwell, who is helping Mr. Cantor’s challenger in the June 20 state GOP primary election.
Larry Nordvig, executive director of the Richmond Tea Party, which claims an email list of 5,000 and has 6,700 “likes” on Facebook and 4,000 Twitter followers, is part of the grass-roots movement attempting to oust Mr. Cantor.
Grass-roots activists joke that attempting to beat Mr. Cantor in the primary is like a novice hiking club taking on Mount Everest: It’s doable but not easy.
Mr. Cantor has the name recognition and ability to outraise his challenger, university professor Dave Brat, many times over from donations by big business and the GOP establishment that signals where contributions should go.
The Republican Main Street partnership, which has gone by a number of names over the years, including the Main Street Coalition, is led by Mr. LaTourette, a Washington lobbyist who is not at all defensive but rather proud of the cooperative role that GOP lawmakers in his group play with Democrats in Congress.
Mr. LaTourette and the Main Streeters grew up with textbooks that said the purpose of federal lawmakers is to get things accomplished by enacting legislation.
As a sign of the group’s bipartisan aim, Mr. LaTourette crows that a significant Main Street Partnership funding source is labor unions that often lean left in elections.
Trade unions contribute a combined total of $1.3 million to the $4 million budget of the Main Street organization, he said.
These unions include the National Education Association (the superpower of unions in America, along with the public employees unions), the operating engineers, the Teamsters, the air traffic controllers, transport workers and other building and trades unions.
Mr. LaTourette cited two main reasons why powerful unions that, cycle after cycle, send their members to help Democrats on Election Day nonetheless donate some of their union members’ dues to the GOP Main Streeters.
“They think of our members as helping them with legislation in Congress on airports, highways, water projects to help get their members back to work,” Mr. LaTourette said.
Second, some Republicans belong to the building and trades unions and to the NEA, so the unions can say their members’ compulsory dues don’t go just to Democrats.
Big business for many decades has bought peace with labor unions, so that detente is not new. But the NEA is a different matter. Conservatives cite what they call its stranglehold on public education as the main reason the quality of U.S. education lags well behind that of other advanced democracies.
Mr. LaTourette says the Amelia Island meeting “isn’t something we thought up this year.” He noted that the Main Street Partnership claims as members about 50 of the 233 House Republicans.
Mr. LaTourette said the reason Mr. Boehner has attended virtually every annual meeting of the group except this year’s is that he felt he had to be part of policy discussions with that many members. Mr. Boehner canceled his Saturday attendance because of what he said is a scheduling conflict.
As to why Mr. Cantor and Mr. McCarthy attend the annual meetings, Mr. LaTourette said it has less to do with ideology than with positioning themselves to compete for the speakership when Mr. Boehner retires from Congress. The contenders for speaker and majority leader will split the votes of the other 190 conservative members, and will need a good portion of the Main Street members to win.
“Many members of our partnership support the Davis-Bacon Act, which is the bread and butter of the building trades unions,” he said.
Illustrating that the idea of compromise is deeply ingrained in American politics, the law was named after two Republicans and was signed into law by President Reagan just before John Hinckley Jr. shot him. The law requires that all federal contracts pay the national union-set wage in all localities — even those without unions — rather than the prevailing wage. It is a benefit to unions that costs U.S. taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars.
The Main Street Partnership is an umbrella organization that covers two nonprofit groups: the Main Street Advocacy Fund and the Defending Main Street SuperPAC. Some of that money goes to help GOP incumbents who compromise with Democrats in the name of pragmatic governance fend off challenges from uncompromising conservative candidates supported by groups such as the Club for Growth, Americans for Prosperity and the multitude of groups bearing the name “tea party.”
Critics’ favorite slam against Main Street is that billionaire leftist George Soros, a superdonor to Democrats, once gave $50,000 to Main Street. The critics say that shows how much of a traitor Main Street is to the GOP.
“Soros — he started out as a Republican — sent a $50,000 check to the Republican Main Street Coalition about 10 years ago and Main Street returned it to him immediately,” Mr. LaTourette said.
Critics say the check was returned only after its reception was made public.
“It was handled in a ham-handed way,” Mr. LaTourette said. Main Street could have kept the check and said it was thus denying $50,000 Democrats otherwise would have to spend against Republicans.
Most Republican Main Street Partnership members are considered liberal within the GOP.
Mr. LaTourette had a 67 percent lifetime American Conservative Union rating and scored an even more dismal — from the right’s viewpoint — 50 percent in 2012, his last year in Congress.
Rep. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia scored a Heritage Action rating of only 47 percent and a Club for Growth lifetime rating of 50 percent.
Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton of Michigan has a Club of Growth conservative rating of only 66 percent.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, one of three Senate GOP Main Streeters, has an American Conservative Union lifetime rating of 83 percent.
The ACU rates 80 and above as conservative.
Scorecards, of course, don’t tell the whole story. Conservative Republicans generally hold Mr. McCain in low regard for his support of the bank and automaker bailouts and for pushing through Congress what the right and many Democrats regarded as unconstitutional and stifling campaign finance regulations.
Mr. Boehner and Mr. Cantor, through their press offices, declined requests for responses or interviews for this article.