As voters go to the polls today, the Republican Party again finds itself in a state of turmoil and facing widely differing choices about its future.
Amid a government shutdown that proved disastrous to its image, the Republican Party popularity sank to an all-time low last month: Just 28 percent of Americans viewed the GOP favorably, according to an October Gallup survey.
As ballots are cast in today’s off-year elections, the Republican Party is recovering from the political wounds of that fight.
But, more significantly, it’s still figuring out what it wants to be. And the GOP civil war that’s been raging since 2010 has shown no signs of letting up.
In today’s highest-profile contests—the governors’ races in Virginia and New Jersey—opposing Republican orthodoxies will be on display.
New Jersey and Virginia
In New Jersey, popular Gov. Chris Christie has used charisma and centrism to win over Democratic voters. Christie accepted the federally-funded-in-the-near-term Medicaid expansion that came along with Obamacare, and two weeks ago, he dropped a court challenge to same-sex marriage (after vetoing a bill to recognize it).
In Virginia, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli boasts the opposite appeal, campaigning as an anti-Obamacare crusader after he led a group of states to challenge it in federal court. A social conservative who opposes abortion except when the life of the mother is endangered, Cuccinelli has been portrayed as out of the mainstream by well-funded Democratic opponent Terry McAuliffe.
Christie is expected to win by a wide margin; Cuccinelli, to lose.
In Alabama’s First Congressional District, Republicans are waging open warfare over the government shutdown.
Republican voters in that district will cast ballots today in a special-election GOP primary runoff between conservative businessman Dean Young and establishment-backed state Sen. Bradley Byrne.
Young, who said he will vote against John Boehner’s speakership if given the chance, is backed by the conservative, Nevada-based Our Voice PAC, launched by former U.S. Senate candidate Sharron Angle.
Young has criticized Boehner’s willingness to take a deal funding Obamacare along with the rest of the government. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which supported the deal to reopen the federal government, has spent nearly $200,000 in support of Byrne.
The shutdown has resuscitated a disagreement Republicans have been having since taking over the House of Representatives in 2011: how far to go to stop President Obama’s agenda.
Republican voters, it seems, disagree with party leaders on that point. Polling reveals broad dissatisfaction among Republicans over how their leaders handled the shutdown. Most wanted to reject the deal and keep fighting Obamacare.
Thanks (in part) to the shutdown, Republicans have more primaries to look forward to in 2014. National groups have thrown support behind a growing list of conservative challengers.
In Kentucky, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell faces a challenge from conservative businessman Matt Bevin, who chastised the top Republican for cutting a deal with Democrats to end the shutdown. Two conservative groups have spent nearly $400,000 opposing McConnell.
Sen. Thad Cochran, R, has represented Mississippi in the U.S. Senate since 1978, but this year he faces a challenge from conservative state Sen. Chris McDaniel, with two national conservative groups—the Madison Project and the Club for Growth—lining up to back McDaniel.
Kansas and Tennessee
In Kansas and Tennessee, tea party challengers Milton Wolf and Joe Carr have accused Sens. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) of going easy on Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius after the Obamacare rollout problems.
Those battle lines are the same that played out in last year’s elections and in shutdown lobbying fight.
As Republicans prepare for the 2014 midterms and the 2016 presidential race, their internal conflicts have only escalated, even as Republicans remain largely united on issues like abortion, gay marriage and gun control. Republicans are still fighting about what to do, but one year away from critical midterm elections in which they’ll seek to preserve their House majority, they don’t seem to be enjoying the struggle quite as much.