The Republican National Committee’s sweeping recommendations to reshape the party following its disastrous performance in 2012 are already facing fierce resistance within the conservative movement, fueling the escalating struggle between the GOP Establishment and its grassroots base.
At issue are a set of proposals aimed at consolidating the primary process, particularly as it relates to selecting the party’s presidential nominee. The report calls for halving the number of primary debates and doing away with caucuses and state conventions in favour of primaries for selecting the party’s nominees.
“We believe the sign of a healthy party is one in which there are competitive primaries where candidates must work to earn voters’ support to become the party’s nominee,” the report reads. “However, winning primaries is not enough. We are in the business of winning general elections. In order to affect public policy, the Republican Party must win general elections and not only primaries.”
But while the RNC’s report makes it clear that “Washington should not try to dictate candidate choices” in primaries, some conservative activists see the proposals as an Establishment power play aimed at stifling the influence of grassroots conservatives.
“It’s sort of like groundhog day where we continue to do the same things over and over again expecting a different result,” Matt Kibbe, executive director of FreedomWorks, told a meeting of influential conservatives in New York Monday night. “They are trying to close the process so we can’t participate in the caucus system, so that we can’t participate in primaries, so that upstart candidates, the one that they tell us can never win, can’t even compete. It’s a little bit like putting the genie back in the bottle — it just can’t happen.”
The RNC’s recommendations have also met fierce hostility among the party’s libertarian wing, and particularly among allies of former Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, whose 2012 campaign used state caucuses and conventions to increase libertarian influence in the Republican Party.
“Elimination of caucuses and conventions would mean nuclear war with the grassroots, social conservatives, the Ron Paul movement and Tea Party Republicans,” said John Tate, a senior Paul advisor who now runs the Campaign For Liberty, a libertarian grassroots lobbying group.
“Caucuses and conventions clearly give a better idea of what the base of the party wants, and the folks who show up for conventions and primaries are the very same people that the party will call upon to do the work each election cycle,” he added. “This is clearly an attempt to get rid of what the base of the party wants.”
For Tate, the RNC’s recommendations are the latest move in a power grab that began at the Republican National Convention, when Ron Paul supporters and Tea Party activists teamed up to fight changes to the state nomination process that similarly consolidate power with the national committee.
“This is more about protecting turf, promoting establishment candidates and keeping consultants richly paid than it is about fixing the broken Republican Party,” Tate said.
RNC Chairman Reince Priebus has sought to downplay the divisions between Republican libertarians and the Establishment, and reiterated to reporters Monday that he thinks Sen. Paul’s filibuster was a “unifying moment” for the GOP.
But while the RNC’s new recommendations may not be directly aimed at quashing another Paul’s White House run, conservative activists argue that the changes to the primary process would inevitably benefit candidates who are well-funded and have high-name recognition, to the detriment of those who draw their support from the GOP’s activist base.
“You have to look at what the base of the party wants, and I think that caucuses give you a better idea of that,” said Iowa GOP Chairman A.J. Spiker. “In caucuses, the voters are more educated, and not as likely to swayed by TV ads.”
“If you look at caucuses versus primaries, primaries tend to go to the best-funded candidates,” Spiker added. “So eventually, I think it would create a situation where super-PACs would play a major role in determining who the Republican nominee is.”
Spiker noted that, for now at least, the report’s findings are merely suggestions, and that the RNC would have to vote on any specific changes to the primary process. He added any proposals to overhaul the primary process dramatically are likely to be met with fierce resistance among committee members.
“Any rules changes need 75 per cent support from the committee,” Spiker said. “And I think you are going to see the activist class speak out very strongly against this.”
More broadly, however, the backlash to the RNC report underscores the growing rift between Republican consultants and the party’s grassroots.
The RNC’s proposals reflect a broad consensus among the Republican Establishment that primaries have badly damaged the GOP in general elections, due in large part to outside groups like FreedomWorks funelling money to far-right conservative candidates. Politico reports that the recommendations are also a nod to Republican donors who have told the GOP that they would like Iowa’s conservative caucus voters conservative activists — like those who vote in Iowa’s caucuses — to have less of a say in the nominating process.
But conservative leaders believe that the RNC’s recommendations are outdated, and unlikely to quash the party’s grassroots donors and activists.
“The world has fundamentally changed and all of the rules that allowed the Republican consultant-industrial complex to dominate the process just don’t matter anymore,” Kibbe said Monday, adding later: “We can beat their top-down, very sophisticated structure with freedom — with people who believe in something.
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