The Republican Party’s internal struggle over how to expand its reach will play out in stark relief at this week’s Conservative Political Action Conference, with activists locked in a near-civil war over the basic question of who should be part of the movement – and who should not.
This year’s meeting has already made news with its exclusion of notable names from the invite list: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.
There will be plenty of conservative stars, like Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky, along with 2012 vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan (among other potential 2016 presidential candidates). And attendees will have a chance to reacquaint themselves with familiar names and faces from the not-so-distant past such as Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin and the ubiquitous Donald Trump.
But the annual conservative confab comes at a serious and crucial moment for the Republican Party: Its last two presidential nominees lost decisively to President Barack Obama, and its lone instrument of power -- the GOP majority in the House -- has been constantly plagued by infighting between conservative insurgents and its establishment-minded leadership.
And the American right seems as divided as ever over the path forward.
“I think, increasingly, we as Republicans have come across as intolerant and unfocused on the needs of the underserved,” said Fred Malek, a fixture of GOP politics for decades.
“And we need to speak much more to the aspirational needs of people, and not speak about the dependence of the ‘47 percent,’” he added, referencing 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s infamous comments, “but rather how the ‘47 percent’ become part of the 25 percent or 10 percent or 1 percent.”
Ideological fealty to marginalize GOP?
That internal struggle threatens to spill into the open at CPAC, a gathering that has been established as an important gathering for official Republicans, yet still attracts the kind of stalwart conservative activists who have helped to ignite this GOP family feud.
“I thought it was a mistake to exclude Christie,” said Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman who remains active in the party’s political leadership. “It reinforces this narrow, closed stereotype of Republicans.”
Christie angered conservatives by agreeing to implement insurance exchanges under Obama’s health care reform law, and for praising the president’s handling of Hurricane Sandy just days before the election. McDonnell upset conservatives with his new transportation law, which includes some new taxes.
“I would argue that they do not have too much to offer up in terms of the future of the conservative movement,” Jeff Bell, of the American Principles Project, said of the two governors.
Those warring views cut to the heart of the modern GOP’s internal rift. On one side are conservatives who are eager to excommunicate Republicans who commit the slightest act of ideological heresy. The other faction is composed of Republicans who worry that the party’s insistence on ideological fealty will continue to marginalize the GOP amid a changing electorate.
Though no immediate resolution is in sight, the Republican National Committee will weigh in following its own autopsy of the party’s shortcomings during last fall’s elections. It will recommend improved digital operations and a more robust outreach, but is also expected to emphasize the need for some candidates to speak in less shrill terms about sensitive issues.
“We can’t run the same campaigns. For some, it means that boneheaded comments about rape and women – that’s just not going to fly,” said a source familiar with the report, referencing GOP Senate candidates in Indiana and Missouri who lost winnable races last fall due to their controversial comments about rape.
Romney's first remarks since election
The forthcoming RNC report and this week’s CPAC gathering add up to a potentially pivotal week for the future of the party.
And though McDonnell and Christie were excluded from the gathering, other corners of the GOP will be well-represented. Tea Party darlings like Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, will each speak.
Also on display will be conservatives who may hope to unify the GOP as the party’s presidential nominee in 2016. Along with Rubio, Paul and Ryan, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker will also address attendees.
The influential conference concludes with an oft-hyped, closely watched straw poll of attendees’ preference in a presidential nominee.
A past winner of two such straw polls, Romney, will make his first public speech since the election on Friday. And former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, whose national star power has waxed and waned in the scope of a single presidential election cycle, will speak on Saturday.
“There’s going to be a lot of heat, but not much light,” on the presidential front said Craig Shirley, a Reagan biographer and conservative PR guru. “It’s not going to resolve itself until the first stirrings of the 2014 midterm elections.”