How serious is the Republican food fight?

With next year's mid-term congressional elections fast approaching, the Republican Party – including its top two Senate leaders – faces a challenge from tea party insurgents on the right.

Susan Walsh/AP
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky. heads to the Senate floor to vote on Friday. McConnell faces a tea party challenger in his bid for a sixth term next year.

It’s always fun to watch an intramural political fight.

Republicans versus Democrats? Too predictable, too boring. Liberal Democrats versus “Third Way” party centrists? Now you’re talking. Mainstream Republicans versus tea party GOP insurgents? Better yet.

Consider some of today’s political headlines:

“Tea Party candidates launch battle against Republican honchos” (New York Daily News) ... “Boehner’s blasts: One more volley in the long GOP battle” (Washington Post) ... “Tea partiers line up to tackle GOP senators” (Politico) ... “So Much for GOP Unity in 2014” (Time)

And for some historical perspective (Politico again): “Teddy Roosevelt Failed to Save the GOP From Its Crazies in 1912 … Can John Boehner do any better?”

The reference to House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio picks up on his laying into conservative political action groups like FreedomWorks and Heritage Action, which are fighting the compromise budget worked out by Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin and Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington.

“Frankly, I think they’re misleading their followers, I think they’re pushing our members in places where they don’t want to be, and frankly, I just think that they’ve lost all credibility,” Boehner said this past week.

Unusually harsh words from the man who has until now hesitated to confront the GOP’s tea party wing – most notably when freshman Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas broke Capitol Hill conventional turf, urging House members toward the government shutdown over Obamacare.

“Can’t we all just get along?” Boehner seemed to be saying to his House caucus. Now, not so much. And as a result, 169 Republicans joined Democrats in approving the Ryan-Murray budget deal.

Politico’s Anna Palmer and Jake Sherman described it this way: “For the first time since they took back the House in 2010, a strong majority of Republicans have rejected the political absolutism encouraged by the professional right that mired Congress in gridlock for years and culminated in a government shutdown this fall.”

Boehner may have found his political mojo this time, but mainstream Republicans like himself can feel the hot breath of challenge from their right as the 2014 mid-term elections approach.

“A year after GOP leaders vowed that infighting between the party establishment and Tea Party activists would not derail Republicans’ electoral hopes again, the air appears as toxic as ever,” reports Time’s Dan Hirschhorn.

Republicans would love to take over as the Senate majority, but that’s unlikely to happen if they nominate weak challengers like Christine O’Donnell, Todd Akin, or Sharron Angle. As Hirschhorn points out, eight of the 12 GOP incumbent Senators seeking re-election face primary challenges.

That includes the top two Senate Republicans – Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas.

Cornyn is being challenged by US Rep. Steve Stockman, an ally of Sen. Cruz who brought right-wing rocker Ted Nugent to President Obama’s State of the Union address.

McConnell’s challenger is businessman Matt Bevin, who says the five-term incumbent isn’t conservative enough.

Because he has to, McConnell says he’s “a big fan of the tea party movement.” But he has a beef with the Senate Conservatives Fund, which pushed Obamacare defunding leading to the government shutdown and which backs Bevin.

“The Senate Conservatives Fund is giving conservatism a bad name. They’re participating in ruining the [Republican] brand,” McConnell told The Washington Examiner last week. “What they do is mislead their donors into believing the reason that we can’t get as good an outcome as we’d like to get is not because of a Democratic Senate and a Democratic president but because Republicans are insufficiently committed to the cause.”

In his Politico magazine piece citing Teddy Roosevelt and the GOP, Thomas Patterson writes this:

“A century ago, the Republican Party chose to become a permanent minority, not wittingly or directly but inevitably. It spent most of the succeeding decades trying without great success to overcome its mistake. Today’s GOP is at a similar crossroads that could take it into the political wilderness for years to come.”

“A showdown is looming between its Tea Party-driven right wing and its less sharply defined center-right faction,” Patterson warns. “If the reactionary wing prevails and fails to accommodate the party’s moderates – which appears likely – the Republican Party will cement its place as the 21st century’s permanent minority party.”

Perhaps. But there are plenty of Republicans who worry about just that.

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