A quick tour through the week’s headlines suggests the Republican Party is beginning to come to terms with the last election and that consensus is emerging among GOP elites that the party needs to move away from discordant social issues.
There was Sen. John McCain's daughter and his campaign manager who last week demanded that their fellow Republicans embrace same-sex marriage. Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman – the most devoted modernizer among the party's 2012 hopefuls – won approving words from New York Times columnist Frank Rich for his call to downplay divisive values issues. The party’s top elected leaders in Congress, meanwhile, spooked by being attacked as the “party of no,” were recasting themselves as a constructive, respectful opposition to a popular president.
But outside Washington, the reality is very different. Rank-and-file Republicans remain, by all indications, staunchly conservative, and they appear to have no desire to moderate their views. GOP activists and operatives say they hear intense anger at the White House and at the party’s own leaders on familiar issues – taxes, homosexuality, and immigration. Within the party, conservative groups have grown stronger absent the emergence of any organized moderate faction.
There is little appetite for compromise on what many see as core issues, and the road to the presidential nomination lies – as always – through a series of states where the conservative base holds sway, and where the anger appears to be, if anything, particularly intense.
"There is a sense of rebellion brewing," said Katon Dawson, the outgoing South Carolina Republican Party chairman, who cited unexpectedly high attendance at anti-tax “tea parties” last week.
That same sense is detectable in New Hampshire, where Union Leader publisher Joseph McQuaid – a stalwart of the base – warned in an unusual column last weekend that the push for same-sex marriage in the state legislature was really about “forcing society to embrace and give positive reinforcement to their lifestyle and agenda in our schools and in every other area of public life imaginable.”
And it is perhaps most tangible in Iowa, where same-sex marriage will become the law this month in response to a state Supreme Court ruling. There, Republican activists and officials say the party is as resolute as ever, if not more so, on cultural issues – regardless of the soundings of some party elites.
Rep. Steve King, an outspoken conservative who represents all of rock-ribbed western Iowa and may run for governor next year, said he had held 11 town hall meetings across the state since the early April state Supreme Court decision.
"Of those 11 meetings, 10 of them were full. Most of them were standing room. The marriage issue was the No. 1 issue on their minds. No. 2 was the massive federal spending taking place. In every discussion, immigration came up."
And these Iowans, King noted, "stand in the same square they always have: They believe marriage is between a man and a woman, and they're opposed to amnesty."
"My e-mail overfloweth," said David Overholtzer, a longtime GOP activist in western Iowa's Pottawattamie County. "Amnesty is still very much a hot-button and gay marriage especially is here in Iowa. The view is that we've got to hold our legislators' and governors' feet to the fire."
"I’ve never seen the grass-roots quite as motivated, concerned and angry," said Steve Scheffler, the head of the Iowa Christian Alliance and the state's RNC committeeman.
The marriage issue and other traditional conservative litmus tests aren't likely to fade before the state's next presidential caucuses, either.
Asked about how a presidential candidate urging the party toward the middle on cultural issues would fare, Scheffler said flatly: “They’re not gonna go anywhere.”
In one sense, Republican leaders face the same challenge their Democratic counterparts did during the Bush years: how to effectively channel the deep emotion of the base while tamping down its excesses.
But the party’s battered infrastructure, still recovering from its drubbings in 2006 and 2008, is also listing to the right. Liberal Republican groups like the Main Street Republican Partnership and the Republican Majority for Choice remain essentially irrelevant, and even the main gay GOP group, the Log Cabin Republicans, is fending off a challenge from a more conservative gay splinter faction.
Ralph Reed, the longtime Christian conservative activist and former chair of the Georgia GOP, predicted that opposition to same-sex marriage would become, like abortion, a litmus test, if a lower-profile one.
"There used to be muscular and vocal disagreement in the party on our pro-life plank," he recalled. "That has largely been resolved. Nobody raises the issue of changing the pro-life plank."
Meanwhile, the hottest new conservative outfit is the National Republican Trust PAC, which raised a stunning $6 million in the waning days of the 2008 contest from millions of small donors who helped fund a slashing television advertisement attacking Obama for his ties to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. It’s taken a similar approach to recent congressional races.
Rick Wilson, a consultant to the group, explained the outlook of “real Republicans” when it comes to Obama.
“They think this guy has grabbed the reins of power and that he is racing as fast as he can first off to reshape the economy and the culture in his image – they are mortified at that and they are terrified of it.”
“There is a fever pitch,” he said, dismissing the notion that the party must sacrifice some of the intensely held views of base voters to expand its coalition to include more young and minority voters. “You don’t get a new coalition by abandoning your old coalition.”
The grass-roots fervor is pushing the party to the right in another concrete way: Two of the most prominent GOP Senate moderates face serious primary challenges in 2010. In Pennsylvania, former Congressman Pat Toomey, a down-the-line economic and social conservative, is running against Sen. Arlen Specter, attacking his “liberal agenda on social, labor, immigration and national security policies.”
In Arizona, Chris Simcox, the founder of the Minuteman Civil Defense Project, a group that mounted armed opposition to illegal immigration at the border, announced this week that he’s running against McCain.
“We’ve had it with the elitist establishment in Washington and John McCain is one of those,” Simcox said.
A conservative Republican operative, meanwhile, said two other prominent conservatives are mulling challenges to sitting GOP senators.
The party will be shaped most clearly, however, when its presidential hopefuls begin their early state pilgrimages after the 2010 midterms. And they’re unlikely to emerge convinced that courting gay and Hispanic voters, in particular, is politically saleable within their parties.
"John McCain found out the hard way that being where he was not an asset,” Reed recalled of last year's presidential primary, noting that the eventual nominee either shifted or downplayed some of his unpopular stances, including on immigration.
A presidential candidate's arrival in an Iowa or South Carolina, Reed noted with a chuckle, offers “what I like to refer to as ‘a dramatically clarifying experience.’”