Many Republicans have been muttering over the last few weeks of political craziness that the tea party’s hold on the GOP must be broken to protect their party’s future health – not to mention, the country’s. So I’ve been asking Republicans what a movement to break the extremists’ power would actually look like.
I put the question to a half-dozen prominent Republican strategists and analysts, and to one particularly influential Democrat, David Plouffe. The answers convince me that a grass-roots movement to rebuild the GOP as a governing party is possible, but only if it’s a disciplined, well-financed effort that mobilizes voters in the Republican-leaning districts where the tea party is strong.
The key factor, several analysts told me, is whether major business groups such as the Chamber of Commerce are on board.
The numbers show why pro-business Republicans should be worried. The New York Times summarized a recent study by Macroeconomic Advisers that estimated the cost of this month’s shutdown at $12 billion in lost output; other estimates are double that. Over the past year, says Macroeconomic Advisers, uncertainty caused by budget showdowns has cost the nation $150 billion in GDP and 900,000 jobs.
A backlash is clearly building within the GOP and beyond. Conservative commentator Rod Dreher wrote in The American Conservative about “the tragedy of Tea Party Republicans destroying their credibility with reckless brinksmanship.”
GOP strategists told me the basic ingredients for revival include: good candidates in key districts; a national nest egg of perhaps $200 million to $300 million; and a “galvanizing” national political leader, such as Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey or former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida.
What are the political mechanics of rolling back Tea Party power? For that, I turned to Plouffe, the Democratic master strategist who engineered President Obama’s 2008 and 2012 victories and is, by many accounts, the most skillful practitioner of techno-politics in the country today.
Plouffe argues that Tea Party incumbents are much more vulnerable than is commonly recognized – but only to challengers who are able to expand the size of the turnout in GOP primaries. Higher turnout is a result, he explains, of good candidates who can energize volunteers and “good data” that can identify who has voted over the past few elections and who hasn’t – and then drive turnout for the challenger.
In states with open primaries where independents can vote, expanding the turnout in GOP primaries would be relatively easy, Plouffe says. But even in states with closed primaries, good data and voter-mobilization tools would put many districts within reach of a strong, well-financed challenger.
The country has lived through a nightmare over the last few weeks, but the tea party is already gearing up for the next round. “See, we’re going to start this all over again,” promises Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana. Republicans who want to stop this destructive politics from further undermining their party and the nation need to get started now.
David Ignatius’ email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.