WASHINGTON — Republicans feel good about this fall’s election even though their party is sharply divided and its brand is badly tainted.
The House GOP last week elected a balanced ticket of leaders in a relatively harmonious process. Nonetheless, the party’s right still complained that its voices were not heard.
And a party leadership that thought it had quelled the tea party rebellion faces a runoff in Mississippi on Tuesday that will end either in a victory for the insurgent challenger, or in charges that the establishment candidate prevailed only because Democrats crossed into the Republican primary to save him.
Is it any wonder that the GOP’s governing game plan for the rest of the year is to do as little as possible? Since the party can’t agree to anything that would pass muster with President Obama and the Democratic Senate, it will bet that Obama’s low poll ratings will be enough for them to make gains in House races and could give them control of the Senate.
All of this is why 2014 will be the year of living negatively.
The prospect of months of attacks and more attacks reflects the depth of disillusionment with Washington. This is the best thing Republicans have going for them, but it might also provide Democrats with their clearest path to holding the Senate. Consider the findings of last week’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
The number that got the most attention was the president’s depressed 41 percent approval rating. But the survey also found that only 29 percent had a positive view of the Republican Party while 38 percent had a positive view of the Democrats. Democratic candidates have remained competitive in many key races because so many voters find the GOP alternative unpalatable.
The survey also showed that Republican divisions are not the invention of right-wing talk-show hosts or bloggers. Republicans who support the tea party are well to the right of others in their party. As NBC’s First Read reported, 68 percent of tea party Republicans said that immigration hurts the United States, compared with only 47 percent of non-tea party Republicans and 42 percent of all Americans. And a PRRI/Brookings survey (with which I was involved) found that while 41 percent of tea party members favored identifying and deporting illegal immigrants, only 26 percent of non-tea party Republicans preferred this option.
By a 74 percent to 23 percent margin in the NBC/Journal poll, tea party Republicans disapproved of requiring companies to reduce greenhouse gases, even if this meant higher energy costs for consumers. By contrast, 57 percent of Americans and 50 percent of non-tea party Republicans backed the idea.
The Republican congressional leadership thus continues to be caught between an aspiration to appeal to middle-ground voters and a fear, reinforced by Eric Cantor’s recent loss, that efforts to do so will be punished by the party’s right, which plays an outsized role in low-turnout primaries. On policy — notably on immigration — this often means that the tea party’s view takes precedence over majority opinion among Republicans.
In electing Rep. Kevin McCarthy as majority leader over the more conservative Rep. Raul Labrador, House Republicans were actually trying to avoid ideology altogether. To replace Cantor, they picked a pragmatist focused on winning elections and an extrovert known for making friends across factional lines. Policy ambition is not McCarthy’s calling card.
The victory of Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana as whip pleased many conservatives and Southerners, but not all — and especially not the most ardently conservative bloggers and talk-show hosts who influence rank-and-file tea party opinion. Erick Erickson of the Red State blog, for example, accused Scalise of having worked “behind the scenes to marginalize conservatives.” Rep. Justin Amash, a young libertarian from Michigan, said the result of the leadership races showed that the House GOP “unfortunately hasn’t heard the message loud enough.”
There will be more loud commotion on Tuesday in Mississippi’s Republican runoff between the tea party’s Chris McDaniel and Sen. Thad Cochran, a six-term incumbent. McDaniel is seen as having the momentum, but his supporters are already attacking Cochran’s campaign for encouraging Democrats to participate in the Republican contest.
Cochran, a McDaniel email insisted, “is so desperate to keep his seat that he’s going to use Democrats to steal the Republican primary.”
So the next stop in the battle for the Republican soul could see either a victory that emboldens the tea party — or a defeat that will be blamed on Democrats and infuriate the movement.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is email@example.com. Twitter: EJDionne.