- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 9, 2014

Last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference did little to dispel the notion of a deep rift between grass-roots activists and national GOP leaders, with CPAC’s three-day straw poll showing frustration with Congress and a growing discontent with “establishment” presidential candidates.

For the first time since the GOP took control of the House in 2011, conservative activists gave them a thumbs-down for the job they are doing, with a 51 percent disapproval (48 percent approval) rating in The Washington Times/CPAC straw poll, a net negative of 3 percent.

Last year, GOP leaders had a 54-44 approval, for a net 10 percent positive rating, and a year earlier they had a stunning 70-28 approval, for a 43 percent positive rating.

And the poor showing extended to some of Washington’s biggest stars and potential presidential contenders.

Rep. Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who wrote December’s budget deal that raised spending in 2014 and 2015, saw his standing with CPAC voters cut in half — from 6 percent support in last year’s presidential straw poll to just 3 percent this year, putting him deep amid the also-rans.

Sen. Marco Rubio, who pushed his colleagues to pass an immigration bill, suffered an even more precipitous drop, from 23 percent and second place in the presidential straw poll to seventh place, with 6 percent support, this year.

“I like Ted Cruz, I like Rand Paul, I like Mike Lee. I like Rubio, but less now than I did a year ago because of immigration,” David Fitzwilliam, 83, told The Washington Times at CPAC.

The activists who gathered for the three days of CPAC are important, but they don’t always reflect the broader base of GOP voters. Indeed, the activists’ poor view of Mr. Ryan is not reflected in the country at large, with a new Des Moines Register poll this weekend showing 67 percent of Iowa Republicans want their neighbor from Wisconsin to run for president.

House Speaker John A. Boehner wasn’t invited to speak at CPAC, though his Senate counterpart, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, did address the crowd, begging for them to trust him with the party’s leadership.

“If I am given the opportunity to lead the U.S. Senate next year, I won’t let you down,” the Kentucky Republican said.

Mr. McConnell last month cast the deciding vote that cleared the way for a debt limit increase, a day after Mr. Boehner pushed the increase through the House on the strength of Democratic votes.

The moves earned both men vitriol from activists outside Washington, but many of their own troops on Capitol Hill seemed relieved to have put the debt issue behind them so painlessly.

Mr. Boehner last week told the Cincinnati Enquirer that he believes he has emerged from the dust-up in solid shape with his members.

“I frankly think I’m in better shape with my own caucus than I have been any time in the last three years,” he told the paper. “I think they understand me better.”

Analysts question that, and no matter what his standing inside Congress, some rank-and-file activists have had enough.

“They don’t have any gonads,” said CPAC attendee Bob Swanson, 75, of Sterling. “Boehner is a disaster.”

He said he gives Mr. McConnell some more leeway since the GOP is the minority party in the Senate, but said he wants to see Mr. Boehner do more to control spending and more to investigate both IRS targeting of conservative groups and the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi.

Frank Morock was more forgiving of the predicament in which the Republicans find themselves.

“I would not want to be a Republican leader right now considering what is taking place inside their caucuses. There is no way that John Boehner or Mitch McConnell is going to make everybody happy,” the 68-year-old from Raleigh, N.C., told The Times. “There is no way and I think they are doing the best job that they could possibly be doing considering the members of the caucus.”

• David Sherfinski contributed to this article.

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