After two disappointing election cycles, Republican leaders demanded that conservative groups end their war on electable primary candidates or risk handing the Senate to the Democrats in 2014. This week, the groups delivered their reply: "Nuts!"
Activists on the right launched a volley of criticism at 2014's first major Senate hopeful on Monday, Rep. Shelly Moore Capito (R-WV). Capito is considered a strong contender for the seat held by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), especially if he decides to retire, but her conservative detractors are demanding a purer candidate.
It's all very reminiscent of the kind of primary fight a lot of Republicans are desperate to avoid after 2012's Senate shellacking. But the groups who helped get candidates like Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin on the ballot this year say they're ready to fight it out with the establishment again in 2014. West Virginia is just the first battlefield of what could be many.
"Congresswoman Capito has a long record of support of bailouts, pork, and bigger government," Club For Growth president Chris Chocola wrote in a press release. "She voted to bail out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, for massive expansions of government-run health insurance, giveaways to big labor, and repeatedly voted to continue funding for wasteful earmarks like an Exploratorium in San Francisco and an Aquarium in South Carolina. That's not the formula for GOP success in U.S. Senate races."
Chocola made clear that he would ignore Republican whining about his previous primary interventions in states like like Indiana, where Club-backed Richard Mourdock defeated incumbent Sen. Dick Lugar (R-IN) only to collapse in the general election. He noted that more mainstream candidates "the Republican establishment cheered" like Denny Rehberg in Montana, Rick Berg in North Dakota, and Heather Wilson in New Mexico, also lost in 2012.
The same day, Jim DeMint's Senate Conservatives Fund announced it wouldn't endorse the "too liberal" Capito. DeMint threw his weight behind a number of candidates in the 2010 primaries that made national GOP strategists uncomfortable. While some, like Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, ended up becoming stars, others, like Christine O'Donnell, were embarrassing losers who helped tarnish the party's national brand.
The West Virginia race is exactly the kind of juicy pickup opportunity that Republicans blew in recent cycles by nominating subpar candidates. Already some in the party are feeling deja vu.
"The last time Republicans elected a senator in West Virginia was 1956," former Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA) told TPM. Davis, who used to char the NRCC, said, "Shelley Moore Capito is their only hope of electing a Republican senator and a conservative this cycle. So the fact that you have some groups opposing her I think explains why we are in the minority in the Senate."
Conrad Lucas, chair of the West Virginia GOP, told TPM that while the state party wouldn't interfere with the primaries, Capito was an unambiguous recruiting coup.
"She's clearly the most popular Republican in the state -- by far -- and is a very strong candidate," Lucas said. He added that her critics on the right were "not representative of West Virginia" where Capito's reputation within the party is sterling.
Both the NRSC and Karl Rove's American Crossroads are considering a more active rule in 2014 to protect their favored candidates against extreme or inexperienced primary challengers. Capito could be a test case for this new approach if her critics on the right recruit a challenger.
The GOP's RINO hunters -- the enforcers of ideological purity who helped drive out Republican candidates that many considered more general election-friendly in past cycles -- say they're ready to go to war with Rove and the NRSC if necessary.
"Going forward, our focus will be on supporting good candidates and of course, we hope that we are not going against the NRSC or any other groups involved in the election process," Amy Kremer, chair of Tea Party Express, told TPM. "However, we will not waver on our principles in choosing candidates to support and endorse."
Tea Party Express has a history of upsetting the Republican establishment. The group backed O'Donnell's Delaware Senate run in 2010 and got behind Mourdock's primary challenge against Lugar this year. Kremer said it was "way too early to make any decisions on what races we will be involved in during the 2014 cycle," and declined to weigh in on Capito other than to say she was "aware" Capito had launched her campaign.
Social conservatives say they're ready to fight Republican attempts to ostracize them after the 2012 cycle as well. Over the weekend, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) became the latest top Republican to express concerns over the social issue debate, saying the GOP should "leave the issue alone" when it comes to abortion rights.
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List, told TPM her side isn't going to take talk like McCain's sitting down. If social conservatives need to fight off the Republican establishment in a brutal primary, so be it. Dannenfelser blames the problems the GOP had with its social message on fear among Republican candidates when it came to talking about abortion and other topics. Had Republicans been more proactive on social issues, they never would have been stuck "on the defensive," she said. Dannenfelser said her group will go to war with Republicans who try to back candidates unwilling to engage on social issues.
"To the extend that they want to repeat what we just saw in this election, yes, we will be insisting 'do not proclaim a truce ahead of the [general] election again.' That's what we just saw," she said. "So if the truce gets proclaimed again then, yes, there will be a very lively argument."
In the days since Nov. 6, most of the focus has been on how the GOP needs to moderate in order to improve its performance in 2014 and beyond. But with Capito kicking off the next cycle with her announcement Monday, the conservative groups who've successfully dominated Republican politics recently made it clear they're not going away without a fight.
This post has been updated.
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