The Republican national chairman, Michael Steele, said victories in New Jersey and Virginia should help relieve divisions.
More Photos »
November 5, 2009
Energized G.O.P. Looking to Avoid an Intraparty Feud
By ADAM NAGOURNEY
WASHINGTON — Republicans emerged from Tuesday’s elections energized by victories in Virginia and New Jersey, but their leaders immediately began maneuvering to avoid a prolonged battle with conservative activists over what the party stands for and how to regain power.
The victories, in races for governor, were cast by the party’s national chairman, Michael Steele, as a sign of a “Republican renaissance.” In New Jersey, Gov. Jon S. Corzine, a Democrat, was toppled by the Republican nominee, Christopher J. Christie. In Virginia, Robert F. McDonnell, the Republican, defeated his Democratic opponent, R. Creigh Deeds.
Republicans said the victories showed that President Obama and his party were vulnerable on the economy, government spending and other issues.
Yet throughout the day Wednesday, Republicans grappled with the disappointing outcome of a special election for what had been a reliably Republican House seat in upstate New York. That contest became a battleground between the party establishment and a conservative insurgency demanding more ideological purity from candidates.
The race was won by a Democrat, Bill Owens, after the Republican nominee, Dede Scozzafava, a moderate, quit as conservative leaders and grass-roots organizations rallied around Douglas L. Hoffman, who ran on the Conservative Party line.
Despite Mr. Hoffman’s loss, many conservatives promised to press on with opposition to centrist Republican candidates. That vow intensified concerns among party leaders that the opportunities they see coming out of Tuesday’s results could be dimmed by intramural battles over whether to reach for the political center or do more to motivate the base on the party’s right.
“When our party is united, whether you run in a Northern state or a Southern state, our party can win,” said the House Republican whip, Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia. “But when you are divided, you can lose a seat that has been in the Republican column for quite a long time.”
The debate has been fueled by a somewhat inchoate populist anger that has taken hold among grass-roots conservatives, encouraged in part by political leaders like Sarah Palin, the party’s vice-presidential nominee last year, and commentators like Glenn Beck of Fox News. In that sense, the divisions within the party extend beyond the traditional strains between the shrinking ranks of Republican moderates and the social and economic conservatives who have dominated the party in recent years.
The situation is all the more complicated because, after the party’s defeats in 2008, it has no dominant leaders or cohesive establishment to bridge the divides and help articulate a positive agenda. In that vacuum, the conservative activists and party leaders were both jockeying for advantage on Wednesday.
Mr. Steele, the party chairman, said in an interview that the outcome in New Jersey and Virginia, where Mr. Christie and Mr. McDonnell had played down their conservative views on social issues, instead focusing on the economy, should go a long way toward relieving the divisions and showing the party how to win next year.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, a potential 2012 presidential candidate who backed Mr. Hoffman in the New York race, told reporters in Iowa that he would not get involved in an intraparty battle again. He said the New York contest, as a special election, had been unusual in that the nominee had been chosen by party leaders rather than by primary.
Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor who is also a possible 2012 contender, urged Republicans not to support third-party candidates, warning that doing so was a recipe for defeat. “There is potential danger if people believe the way to get the attention of Washington is through third-party candidates,” he said. “Typically what a third-party candidate does is ensure the election of the one you like the least.”
But Mr. Huckabee, eager not to alienate conservatives, made clear that he would support primary challenges to Republican candidates who he thought strayed from the party’s values. As one example, he said he was supporting a conservative challenger to Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida, who is seeking the nomination for a Senate seat in a primary that is shaping up as the next big showdown between Republicans.
Senator John Cornyn of Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told ABC News that the committee would not spend money on behalf of candidates it is supporting in contested Republican primaries, like Mr. Crist in Florida. Although the committee typically does not spend money in a primary, Republicans said Mr. Cornyn’s remark was intended to relieve some of the anger being directed at the party establishment.
Ms. Palin, who had endorsed Mr. Hoffman in the upstate New York race, indicated that she had not been dissuaded by his loss.
“To the tireless grass-roots patriots who worked so hard in that race and to future citizen-candidates like Doug,” she wrote on her Facebook page, “please remember Reagan’s words of encouragement after his defeat in 1976: the cause goes on.”
And Senator Jim DeMint, Republican of South Carolina, announced that he was endorsing Chuck DeVore, a conservative, in the California race for a Senate seat. Mr. DeVore is opposing Carly Fiorina, former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, who was encouraged by party leaders to seek the nomination.
Other conservatives, too, were not deterred by the New York defeat. Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a conservative organization that strongly supported Mr. Hoffman, said that conservative activists intended to play a role in Republican primary and general elections next year and that it was just as important to keep unacceptable politicians out of Congress as to help others win.
Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth, another conservative group that campaigned heavily on behalf of Mr. Hoffman, said the organization was now considering issuing endorsements in contested Senate and House Republican races in New Hampshire, Florida, Kentucky and California.
Former Speaker Newt Gingrich, who had endorsed the moderate Republican in the New York race, said the opportunity suggested by the results in New Jersey and Virginia should be an impetus to resolve tensions.
“I think the conservative movement and the Republican leadership can pretty rapidly come to an agreement that defeating Pelosi in 2010 and Obama in 2012 is worth sorting things out for,” Mr. Gingrich said.
Mr. Gingrich said that throughout history, political leaders had emerged to steer parties to power by reconciling competing factions. Asked which Republicans had the stature to do so now, he replied: “That will happen. Or it will not.”
Mr. Steele said he hoped that the party would be able to skirt further divisive battles.
“You know what the reality is?” he said. “This is healthy, in that it exposes fault lines that we can learn to avoid.”
Carl Hulse and Jeremy W. Peters contributed reporting.