NEW ORLEANS — Even as Republicans preach the need for solidarity, divisions between the tea party and the GOP establishment are clear at a national conservative summit.
Former Republican Party Chairman Haley Barbour played the part of elder statesman Friday, warning delegates to the Republican Leadership Conference that the party must embrace compromise to win more elections, particularly the 2016 presidential contest.
“In a two-party system, purity is the enemy of victory,” Barbour said. “Never forget that the purpose of winning is to govern. And never forget, you have to be a big party before you can win elections.”
The former Mississippi governor drew a standing ovation for his lecture, but the same crowd spent the afternoon cheering a parade of archconservatives eschewing the calls for pragmatism.
“We’re under attack from within our own coalition,” said David Bossie, leader of the conservative group Citizens United. “This is a recipe for a crippled conservatism, a losing movement and a failing country.”
Former Rep. Allen West warned Republicans not to be “a lesser version of the other side.”
Family Resarch Council President Tony Perkins urged an uncompromising stance on abortion, the definition of marriage and other matters of faith. “We must not be arrogant,” he said, “but we must not be intimidated.”
Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, a tea party favorite who unseated Republican Bob Bennett in as the GOP nominee in 2010, seemingly tried to split the difference. “It’s time for us to move from saying what we don’t want from government to (promoting) what we do want,” he said. But he noted that the plan must be “unabashedly conservative.”
It’s a familiar conundrum for Republicans. The party is poised to maintain its House majority and has a strong chance to win a Senate majority for the final two years of President Barack Obama’s tenure, boosted by an expected midterm electorate that will be older, whiter and more conservative than the 2012 electorate. Yet younger, non-white voters who lean Democratic helped Obama win twice.
And even reclaiming the Senate depends on not losing winnable elections as Republicans have done in recent cycles. Barbour referenced those races – Delaware and Nevada in 2010, Missouri and Indiana in 2012 – where archconservatives defeated moderates in GOP primaries only to lose general elections to Democrats who attacked them as extreme.
Tuesday’s Senate primary in Mississippi has similar dynamics as state Sen. Chris McDaniel tries to unseat six-term Sen. Thad Cochran. Barbour did not mention his support for Cochran, but Citizens United’s Bossie was unsparing in his cheerleading for McDaniel.
“We’re going to send a shock to the establishment,” he said.
Barbour was among the few faces of that establishment to share the stage at the three-day conference that opened Thursday. Activists here say they’re focused on reclaiming a Senate majority this fall and the White House in 2016 and recognize that it will take winning more support from independent women, young voters and minorities. But judging by the equally enthusiastic reception for competing visions, there’s little consensus on how to do it.
In his history lesson, Barbour summoned an icon for Republicans: President Ronald Reagan. But Barbour, who served as political director in the Reagan White House, didn’t use his former boss as an example of unwavering conservatism.
“Reagan compromised on everything,” Barbour said, citing sweeping overhauls of Social Security, immigration law and the tax code with Democrats controlling one or both chambers of Congress.
Not coincidentally, Barbour said, Reagan won in two landslides.
“We’ve got to be willing to understand that Americans rightfully expect us to produce, to solve problems, to get things done,” he said.
Follow Barrow on Twitter @BillBarrowAP.