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Uncivil War: Conservatives to challenge a dozen GOP candidates


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  • Uncivil War: Conservatives to challenge a dozen GOP candidates

    This should be intresting...Especially after they gut check Florida governor Charlie Crist...

    Uncivil War: Conservatives to challenge a dozen GOP candidates

    Alex Isenstadt, Charles Mahtesian Alex Isenstadt, Charles Mahtesian – Tue Nov 3, 4:38 am ET

    In what could be a nightmare scenario for Republican Party officials, conservative activists are gearing up to challenge leading GOP candidates in more than a dozen key House and Senate races in 2010.

    Conservatives and tea party activists had already set their sights on some of the GOP’s top Senate recruits — a list that includes Gov. Charlie Crist in Florida, former Rep. Rob Simmons in Connecticut and Rep. Mark Kirk in Illinois, among others.

    But their success in Tuesday’s upstate New York special election, where grass-roots efforts pushed GOP nominee Dede Scozzafava to drop out of the race and helped Conservative Party nominee Doug Hoffman surge into the lead on the eve of Election Day, has generated more money and enthusiasm than organizers ever imagined.

    Activists predict a wave that could roll from California to Kentucky to New Hampshire and that could leave even some GOP incumbents — Utah Sen. Bob Bennett is one — facing unexpectedly fierce challenges from their right flank.

    “I would say it’s the tip of the spear,” said Dick Armey, the former GOP House majority leader who now serves as chairman of FreedomWorks, an organization that has been closely aligned with the tea party movement. “We are the biggest source of energy in American politics today.”

    “What you’re going to see,” said Armey, “is moderates and conservatives across the country in primaries.”

    These high-stakes primaries, pitting the activist wing of the party against the establishment wing, stand to have a profound impact on the 2010 election landscape since they will create significant problems for moderate candidates recruited by the national party precisely because they appear well-suited to win in places that are not easily — or even plausibly — won by conservative candidates.

    The tensions between the two visions threaten to limit the party’s gains in an election year that is shaping up in its favor.

    Party strategists worry that well-funded, well-organized challenges from the right could force Republicans to exhaust precious resources on messy primary fights — or force moderate candidates to adopt more strident positions early on that could haunt them during the final months of the campaign.

    “For me, what this says is, we need to take a deep breath and decide whether [moderates and conservatives] work together or not,” said Tom Davis, the former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “And if we don’t, it can get very, very ugly.”

    Activists contend that the only way back to majority status is to embrace the conservative principles that the party jettisoned during the past decades once it became too enamored of power. To them, the issue is less about ideological purity than about the compromises they see the party’s Washington establishment making and what they contend is a lack of support for conservative candidates who are deemed unelectable by GOP solons.

    “New York 23, on some scale, is the first battle of a larger internal Republican debate over how to define the party,” said former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, a conservative who is challenging Crist for the Senate nomination. “They want us to vote for their candidates, but they don’t want us to run for office.”

    Rubio’s race is one that many on the right point to as the next New York 23, a contest where conservatives and tea party activists are in open revolt about Crist and the national party’s decision to endorse him despite his embrace — literally — of President Barack Obama and his stimulus package during a Florida visit in February.

    Rubio has won nearly a dozen county GOP straw polls across the state and is rapidly becoming a darling of the tea party movement.

    Everett Wilkinson, an organizer for the Florida Tea Party Patriots, said his group plans to take part in get-out-the-vote activities and other efforts to deny Crist the GOP nomination, despite the fact that Crist leads both Rubio and Rep. Kendrick Meek, the likely Democratic nominee, by a comfortable margin.

    To Wilkinson, he’d rather burn the house down if it means saving it.

    “We would lose if Charlie Crist got elected or if another person who doesn’t support our policies got elected,” he said. “Our members are actively going to get out there and create awareness of the governor’s actions.”

    Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a leading conservative who has endorsed Rubio, said he viewed the Florida Senate race as distinct from the New York special election. But he agreed with Rubio’s contention that the national party needed to broaden its outlook on candidates.

    “I’m not saying our party made a mistake, because there’s a debate within the party over what we should be,” he said. “If we just start looking at who can win — sometimes we might miss a gem in the rough in effect. And I said from the beginning, that’s what I think Rubio is.”

    Florida turns out to be one of many states where Senate candidates favored — in one way or another — by the National Republican Senatorial Committee are facing serious pushback from the grass roots.

    In almost every situation, the lay of the land is the same. Whether it’s California, Illinois, Connecticut, New Hampshire or Kentucky, the NRSC has found a candidate who appears to be an exceptionally strong general election prospect — either well-known, well-financed or ideologically well-suited to the state’s politics — who is nevertheless meeting with tough resistance at the grass-roots level from activists who believe the conservative cause would be better served over the long term, even if it means the party nominee loses in the short term.

    Even in Illinois, where polls shows Kirk would be highly competitive as a general election candidate in a state in which Republicans have been crushed in recent elections, the prospect of picking up the president’s former Senate seat isn’t enough to win over many activists.

    “We’re going to work hard as hell to make sure Mark Kirk doesn’t win,” said Evert Evertsen, an Illinois tea party organizer. “Mark Kirk is about as liberal as Arlen Specter was.”

    GOP House and Senate incumbents are fair game, too.

    In Utah, where Bennett has won reelection by landslide margins since first winning the seat in 1992, disgruntled conservatives are looking to take him down in next year’s state party convention after his Wall Street bailout vote last fall and several other high-profile votes in which he broke with the right.

    In the House, Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) is among a handful of GOP veterans facing primary challenges of varying competitiveness for their departures from conservative orthodoxy.

    “It’s kind of like investors in a company saying they’re not going to tolerate it anymore. And that’s what we’re seeing here,” said Eric Odom, executive director of the American Liberty Alliance, a libertarian-oriented group. “We’re already gearing up. This is just the beginning.”

    Manu Raju and Josh Kraushaar contributed to this story.

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