Pragmatists Fight Purists Over Future of GOP

The Republican Party debates which type of candidates to nominate.

By + More
Karl Rove talks in his mobile phone as he walks across the floor before the second session of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2012.
Karl Rove talks in his mobile phone as he walks across the floor before the second session of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2012.

Republicans are battling over how conservative the party should be and whether ultraconservatives should be filtered out of the nominating process.

This struggle between pragmatists and purists has erupted periodically over the years, especially when the GOP has endured setbacks in the opinion polls or in elections. It has gotten more intense since the GOP suffered a bitter defeat in the presidential election last November while also losing seats in the House and failing to take over the Senate from the Democrats.

The pragmatists say the Republicans would have done better to nominate the most conservative candidates who could actually win, while the purists argue that conservative ideology should prevail. The latest flash point is the sharp exchange between leaders of the Tea Party Express, a top conservative group, and a more pragmatic organization called the Conservative Victory Project, co-founded by Karl Rove, the former political adviser to President George W. Bush.

The Tea Party Express calls itself the nation's largest Tea Party political action committee. Other groups criticizing the Conservative Victory Project include the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund.

[READ: Right Girds for Four More Years of Fight]

Karl Rove talks in his mobile phone as he walks across the floor before the second session of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2012.
Karl Rove talks in his mobile phone as he walks across the floor before the second session of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2012.

The Rove-related group aims to filter out GOP candidates whom it considers too flawed to win general elections. Candidates cited in that category from 2012 were defeated Senate nominees Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana.

Rove remains a lightning rod in GOP politics. Some conservatives see him as too much of an establshment accommodator. And they argue that his American Crossroads political action committee wasted millions of dollars in donations in 2012 by winning few of the contests in which it participated.

The current battle is part of a larger struggle to determine the direction of the GOP. Tea Party Express leader Amy Kremer said, "The newly launched Conservative Victory Project wants to push the Tea Party out and replace them with the failed strategies of 2008 and 2012. This Super PAC is choosing power [over] principle, but will end up alienating conservatives and [creating] electoral losses.

"If the establishment's large donors want to see a complete electoral catastrophe, then all they need to do is push Tea Party conservatives into supporting alternative third candidates. ... The secret ingredient to a winning formula is conservative principles. [Ronald] Reagan's victories in the 1980s, [Rep.] Newt Gingrich and the Republican revolution of 1994, and the Tea Party's historic wins in 2010 were all made possible because the Republican party and its candidates stood strongly and proudly for pro-growth fiscal conservative policies."

[BROWSE: Political Cartoons on the Republican Party]

Kremer said the freshman class in the House includes 35 Republicans, 27 of whom are Tea Party conservatives. In the Senate, the Tea Party had a net gain of three, Kremer added.

But critics of the Tea Party argue that the GOP would have done better if some of its candidates had been more centrist, especially on social issues such as abortion and immigration.

Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com, and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at kwalsh@usnews.com and followed on Facebook and Twitter.