Republican political consultants hoping for a comeback

Tea Party Movement

In an op-ed last month at The Daily Caller, Morton Blackwell, founder of the Leadership Institute, noted last month that political consultants are part of the problem within the Republican Party.

Often motivated by financial interests, the political consultant, writes Blackwell, often finds himself branching into lobbying, though “he continues to take some candidates as clients, partly to keep his valuable ties with incumbents and partly because there are in each election cycle some rich candidates and others able to raise big war chests.”

But grassroots activists have threatened political consultants in recent years as insurgent campaigns have become the norm inside the Republican Party. Roll Call notes that this has the insider-class scrambling to regain their power:

The internal battle for the direction of the Republican Party has enveloped Washington’s GOP consultant class, as pragmatic party strategists hired to win campaigns ponder how to reclaim control of the primary process from powerful conservative activist groups.

This developing conflict comes in the aftermath of consecutive election cycles that saw Republicans blow as many as five Senate races because the party nominated flawed candidates over those who were better suited to compete in the general election.

Some of these losing 2010 and 2012 nominees received crucial support from Washington-based tea party groups that made their primary campaigns viable. GOP consultants who found themselves on the losing end are considering the formation of outside groups of their own to counter these organizations and boost their favored candidates in the 2014 primaries.

“The bigger the office, the brighter the spotlight, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to elect a lousy candidate over a good candidate in any [general election] Senate race, regardless of ideology,” said a Republican strategist who is frustrated with the hold that conservative groups like the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks and the Senate Conservatives Fund have had on the GOP primary process in recent elections.

Unlike these tea-party-affiliated groups, this Republican strategist and others who think similarly (prioritizing winning over ideological purity) argue that a Republican will always be more conservative than a Democrat and the party’s objective should be to control the White House and Congress so it can set the governing agenda and prevent Democrats from enacting laws like the Affordable Care Act.

In quiet postmortem sessions, these strategists are exploring ways to influence primaries and curb the power of the tea party groups. The GOP needs to flip six seats, net, to win control of the Senate in 2014, and many Republicans say the party would at least be at parity in the chamber if “unelectable” candidates had not lost races in Colorado, Delaware and Nevada in 2010 and Indiana and Missouri in 2012.

Wait, “unelectedable candidates?” Yes, there were some candidates — for example, Richard Mourdock and Christine O’Donnell — that were backed by the Tea Party over the last couple of cycles that were unelectable.

It’s important to note that Todd Akin, whose now infamous “legitimate rape” line probably cost him the Senate seat in Missouri, was not a Tea Party candidate. He was not endorsed by any of the groups listed above. In fact, FreedomWorks endorsed John Brunner in that race while Sarah Palin and other Tea Party groups lined up behind Sarah Steelman. It was largely social conservatives and evangelicals that propelled Akin.

Despite the criticism that has been sent the way of fiscally conservative and grassroots groups, Josh Kraushaar notes over at the National Journal that the Tea Party has led to more diversity in the Republican Party, which is often viewed as having race issues:

For Republicans who believe the tea party is responsible for the GOP’s struggles, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s decision to choose Rep. Tim Scott to replace Jim DeMint in the Senate would have come as a stunner. The nation’s second Indian-American governor appointed the only African-American who will be serving in the Senate come 2013. And not only are they both Republicans, they are tea party-aligned conservatives who took on the party establishment and won.

It’s ironic that at a time when party strategists are publicly panicking over the party’s need to diversify or face extinction, they’re blind to the reality that if it wasn’t for the much-maligned tea party, the Republican Party would be even more homogeneous than it is today.

Haley, a little-known state legislator before being elected governor, would never have had a chance at becoming governor against the state’s good ol’ boy network of statewide officeholders. Scott would have been a long shot in his Republican primary against none other than Strom Thurmond’s youngest son. Marco Rubio, now the hyped 2016 presidential favorite, would have stepped aside to see now-Democrat Charlie Crist become the next senator, depriving the party of one of its most talented stars. Ted Cruz, the other Hispanic Republican in the Senate, would have never chanced a seemingly futile bid against Texas’s 67-year-old lieutenant governor, seen as a lock to succeed Kay Bailey Hutchison.

But all those upset victories—all of which at the time seemed shocking—took place because of the conservative grassroots’ strong sentiment for outsiders who campaigned on their principles, and not over their past political or family connections. Even a decade ago, party officials would have been more successful in pushing these outsider candidates aside, persuading them to wait their turn. (In Rubio’s case, it almost worked.)  Now, in an era where grassroots politicking is as easy as ever thanks to the proliferation of social media, more control is in the hands of voters. And contrary to the ugly stereotypes of conservative activists being right-wing to the point of racist, it’s been the tea party movement that’s been behind the political success of most prominent minority Republican officeholders.

Rather than try to push out the grassroots, political consultants should be looking for ways they can work with them. When it all comes down to it, whether they like it or not, the consultant class needs the grassroots more than the grassroots needs them.

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