Ever since the era of Ronald Reagan, victorious Republican coalitions have always been built via coalitions of disparate but essentially compatible factions. While most of the mainstream liberal media these days tends to lump Republicans into only two categories–establishment types and Tea Party extremists–the same groupings that worked together to elected Reagan as well as the first and second George Bush are still there. Fiscal conservatives, libertarians, social conservatives, and foreign-policy hawks are still the building blocks of the right’s hope to take back Congress and the White House. But the days of GOP unity are long gone as some elements of that coalition are already at odds. Libertarians led by Senator Rand Paul have already clearly broken with the conservative consensus on maintaining a strong American presence abroad and seem willing to not only retreat from the Middle East, as Barack Obama seems to intend, but to pull back on other fronts as well. Disagreements over budget cuts and the sequester have also highlighted the increasing tensions between the fiscal hawks, libertarians, and the shrinking constituency for a strong national defense. But with the campaign for the 2016 GOP nomination already in its early stages, perhaps the most fascinating battle is the one that might be brewing between libertarians and the evangelicals.
The possibility for such a conflict was displayed on Friday when, as Politico reports, the Club for Growth issued a statement slamming former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee for what it considered his insufficiently conservative fiscal record. Given that Huckabee–though a force among Christian conservatives–will be committing against a deep Republican bench of governors and senators that include Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, Paul, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and even the 2012 runner-up Rick Santorum, the decision of the Club to launch a pre-emptive strike on the winner of the 2008 Iowa caucus seems like a curious decision. Why would the home office of the libertarian critique of tax-and-spend liberalism think it worth the time and the effort to take a shot at a favorite of Christian conservatives in this manner? Are they really that concerned about nipping a Huckabee boomlet in the bud before it gains momentum and ultimately harms the chances of candidates like Paul, Cruz, or Walker that are more to their liking? Or is this merely the opening shot of much bigger struggle inside the conservative tent for control of the direction of the party or at least its Tea Party wing?
What needs to be first understood about these core GOP constituencies is that there is considerable overlap between those who call themselves Tea Partiers and those who identify with Christian conservative causes. Every single one of those Republican leaders who have sought to mobilize party support on behalf of cutting government spending and holding the line on taxes can appeal to evangelicals on key issues like abortion. Indeed, support for the pro-life position is virtually a given in the contemporary Republican Party and encompasses a consensus that even includes so-called moderates like Christie.
That said, although Democrats have emphasized social issues in the last two election cycles as they sought to smear their opponents as waging a faux “war on women” on issues like abortion and the ObamaCare contraception mandate, most Republicans have spent more time in recent years talking about fiscal issues and ObamaCare than abortion. Many of those GOP candidates who were labeled as culture warriors, like the disastrous Missouri GOP Senate candidate Todd Akin, not only lost but helped sink other Republicans as well. As a result, in a party that was primarily focused on stopping or repealing ObamaCare, we haven’t heard as much from Christian conservatives.
But the 2012 GOP primaries should have reminded us that the social-issue vote could still be a powerful force. By winning over the same constituency that made Huckabee a force in 2008, Rick Santorum came from the back of the pack to be the last man standing in the Republican contest other than the eventual nominee Mitt Romney. If groups like the Club for Growth are worried about Huckabee returning to the presidential fray it is because they know that not only is his core constituency an important voting bloc, but that those who identify as evangelicals are often some of the same people rallying to the Tea Party banner.
With a little more than two years to go before that crucial 2016 Iowa caucus, it’s far from clear how exactly these factions or the potential candidates will sort themselves out. But whoever emerges as the frontrunner in Iowa is going to have to appeal to both of these key constituencies. Christie may hope to win via Romney’s more centrist approach as the sole moderate conservative in the field. But as Santorum proved, anyone who can corner the evangelical vote will have a chance in Iowa and many other states. Their votes will be all the more crucial since so many potential candidates will be competing for the same libertarian and Tea Party votes.
Blasting Huckabee, who has shut down the radio show he had for the last year and a half and appears to be gearing up for another presidential run, may seem premature. But the willingness of one of the leading libertarian/fiscal conservative think tanks to put him in the cross-hairs shows that the real GOP civil war may not be the bally-hooed conflict between the Karl Rove types and the grass roots activists that we’ve been hearing so much about in the last year. Instead it may turn out to be a complicated and often confusing battle for the hearts and minds of fiscal conservatives who also happen to think of themselves as Christian conservatives.
That’s why Club for Growth seems so eager to take out Huckabee before he even gets started as well as why many of those GOP candidates who have been obsessing about ObamaCare and taxes in the last year may now start to spend more time talking about abortion and other issues of interest to evangelicals. The Republican who can best unite both factions will have a substantial advantage in 2016.