“Let’s face it: it was not a good maneuver,” Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, the senior Senate Republican and supporter of the deal that ended the showdown, said on Thursday in an interview from his Capitol Hill office. “And that’s when you’ve got to have the adults running the thing.”
Around the same time, roughly a thousand miles away in Mississippi, a 42-year-old Republican state senator, Chris McDaniel, was announcing his bid to take the seat held by one of those “adults” — Senator Thad Cochran, 75, a six-term incumbent and the very picture of the Republican old guard, whose vote to end the standoff Mr. McDaniel called “more of a surrender than a compromise.”
Insurgent conservative groups like the Senate Conservatives Fund, the Madison Project and the Club for Growth immediately announced their support for Mr. McDaniel, the chairman of the Mississippi State Senate’s Conservative Coalition and a former Christian-radio host, providing an early glimpse of what the next three years are likely to hold for the Republican Party.
The budget fight that led to the first government shutdown in 17 years did not just set off a round of recriminations among Republicans over who was to blame for the politically disastrous standoff. It also heralded a very public escalation of a far more consequential battle for control of the Republican Party, a confrontation between Tea Party conservatives and establishment Republicans that will play out in the coming Congressional and presidential primaries in 2014 and 2016 but has been simmering since President George W. Bush’s administration, if not before.
In dozens of interviews, elected officials, strategists and donors from both wings of the party were unusually blunt in drawing the intraparty battle lines, suggesting that the time for an open feud over the Republican future had arrived.
“It’s civil war in the G.O.P.,” said Richard Viguerie, a veteran conservative warrior who helped invent the political direct mail business.
The moment draws comparisons to some of the biggest fights of recent Republican Party history — the 1976 clash between the insurgent faction of activists who supported Ronald Reagan for president that year and the moderate party leaders who stuck by President Gerald R. Ford, and the split between the conservative Goldwater and moderate Rockefeller factions in 1964.
Some optimistic Republicans note that both of those campaigns planted the seeds for the conservative movement’s greatest success: Reagan’s 1980 election and two terms as president.
“The business community thought the supply-siders were nuts, and the country club Republicans thought the social conservatives scary,” William Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard, said of those squabbles. “That all worked out O.K.”
Far from being chastened by the failure to achieve any of the concessions they had sought from President Obama — primarily to roll back his signature health care law — the conservative activists who helped drive the confrontation in Congress and helped fuel support for the 144 House Republicans who voted against ending it are now intensifying their effort to rid the party of the sort of timorous Republicans who they said doomed their effort from the start.
“This was an inflection point because the gap between what people believe in their hearts and what they see in Washington is getting wider and wider,” said Jim DeMint, a former South Carolina senator and current Heritage Foundation president, who as a founder of the Senate Conservatives Fund is helping lead the insurgency.
Mr. DeMint, a sort of political godfather to the junior Republican representatives who engineered the health care fight and shutdown, said of his acolytes: “They represent the voices of a lot of Americans who really think it’s time to draw a line in the sand to stop this reckless spending and the growth of the federal government.”
But the party’s establishment leaders now have what they regard as proof that the activist wing’s tactics do not, and will not, work.
“The 20 or 30 members of the House who have been driving this aren’t a majority, and too often the strategy — the tactic — was ‘Let’s just lay down a marker and force people to be with us,’ ” said the senior Republican strategist Karl Rove. “Successful movements inside parties are movements that persuade people,” he added. “The question is, can they persuade? And thus far the jury’s out.”
Unlike in the last two elections when they were caught off guard by grass-roots primary candidates, who went on to lose otherwise winnable races, the establishment’s most powerful elements are going to try to pre-empt another round of embarrassing defeats.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce will decide which candidates to support in the 2014 midterm elections based in part upon whether they voted for the deal on Wednesday to end the shutdown and raise the debt ceiling.
The leading establishment “super PAC” co-founded by Mr. Rove, American Crossroads, has already started a new initiative called the Conservative Victory Project that is quietly working to head off Republican challengers whose victories in primaries, in its determination, would put party seats — or potential party seats — at risk of falling to Democrats in general elections.
But the jockeying for supremacy is making some longtime Republican lawmakers uneasy. Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri said the internal squabbles could weaken the party’s ability to wage battles against Democrats.
“You just can’t win these fights over a long period of time if you’re fighting over how to have the fight,” he said.
At its heart, this fight is the latest chapter of a long-running struggle for dominance between a generally pro-business, center-right bloc that seeks to tame but not exactly dismantle Washington, and populist conservatives who call for more extreme measures to shrink government.
Though the election and re-election of Mr. Obama may have radicalized many conservatives, the base’s fury has its roots in the two terms of his predecessor, Mr. Bush, whose expansion of Medicare, proposed immigration overhaul and 2008 bank bailout left many conservatives distraught.
“People just saw a party that had wandered away from its soul,” said Michael A. Needham, the chief executive of Heritage Action, an offshoot of the Heritage Foundation and perhaps now the most influential lobby group among Congressional Republicans.
But the conservatives’ sense of disillusionment with the establishment did not translate into success in the 2008 or 2012 nomination fights. And the divergent reactions to Mitt Romney’s defeat at the hands of Mr. Obama last year reignited a debate from Mr. Obama’s defeat of Senator John McCain in 2008.
Some establishment Republicans argued that the primary season helped drive Mr. Romney to take more conservative positions than he otherwise would have on issues like immigration. Activists voting against him asserted that he lost because he did not truly embrace conservative principles.
That argument has resurfaced this year in the Virginia governor’s race. The state attorney general, Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, a Tea Party enthusiast, is trailing Terry McAuliffe, a former Democratic national chairman, in every poll. And Republicans are already pointing to Mr. Cuccinelli’s strident views and the shutdown as the explanation for why the race may be out of reach.
Conservatives reject this line of thinking, arguing that Mr. Cuccinelli’s problem is that he drifted from his roots and ran an overly safe campaign on the economy without responding in kind to Democratic attacks on his social views.
For mainline Republicans, there is an obvious contrast: Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey is on track to win re-election in a landslide.
“Cuccinelli represents the party of no, and that’s not going to do so well in Virginia,” said Alex Castellanos, a longtime Republican strategist. “Christie is somebody who represents straight talk and a change from business as usual, and he’s going to do very well.”
A Focus on the Senate
The more important intraparty fight will begin playing out chiefly in Senate primaries next year, with the targeting of incumbents like Mr. Cochran; Mitch McConnell, the minority leader; Lindsey Graham of South Carolina; and perhaps Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Pat Roberts of Kansas.
Their perceived roles as moderating drags on Tea Party-inspired senators like Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah in the shutdown negotiations has galvanized conservative organizations to elect more such Republicans.
Mr. DeMint said he thought the power of the establishment and its corporate money was waning. “It’s harder to buy influence in Washington now,” he said.
That is certainly true in the House, the bulwark of Tea Party conservatism thanks to the overwhelmingly Republican nature of many of the districts and the less expensive campaigns necessary in them.
As the Republican retreat on the shutdown demonstrated, Mr. Cruz and Mr. Lee are very much outnumbered in the Senate.
“The lesson is, we need more reinforcements,” said Daniel Horowitz, an official with the Madison Project. Groups like his are more reliant on smaller dollar donations than their rivals. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Crossroads, for example, can summon large amounts from donors across the business spectrum, many of whom are expressing concern about the latest turn of events on Capitol Hill and are intent on avoiding nominees like Richard Mourdock of Indiana, who unseated Senator Richard G. Lugar, a longtime veteran, in the primary but lost in the general election after making a damaging comment on rape.
“I have seen the problems in some of these primaries where we’ve knocked off some pretty good candidates and it resulted in nothing for us — like Lugar,” said Mel Sembler, a Florida real estate developer and former ambassador who helps Crossroads raise money.
Spencer Zwick, the chief fund-raiser for Mr. Romney’s campaign, said individual donors tell him they are eager to help the establishment wing’s cause however they can. “There are a lot of individual donors who were supportive of Mitt’s campaign who are quietly waiting to figure out how they can play, and I think there’s a lot of appetite to make sure that we nominate candidates who can win general elections,” he said.
The Tea Party-aligned groups say they have an established record of winning primaries against Republican rivals with deep corporate backing. “We’ve always been outspent by orders of magnitude,” said Matt Kibbe, the president of FreedomWorks. And they do have some big donors, like the multimillionaire investor Foster Friess, who backed a failed primary challenge to Mr. Hatch in Utah last year and indicated in an interview last week that he would consider new “opportunities to put young, dynamic people in.”
But two stalwart backers of the movement, the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, did not support the shutdown strategy, and people with knowledge of their thinking say they are unlikely to engage in primary efforts against incumbents.
Such reluctance illustrates a central challenge for the insurgents in their effort to take over the party: unity. And the primary challenge to Mr. McConnell from a wealthy Louisville businessman, Matt Bevin, offers a vivid example of how the Tea Party movement’s hand is weakened when its leaders do not rally around shared goals.
Former Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska suggested last week that she would try to help defeat Mr. McConnell, and the Senate Conservatives Fund announced on Friday that it was backing Mr. Bevin. But the Club for Growth is still assessing the race because, its president, Chris Chocola, said, Mr. Bevin is “an unproven candidate.”
And when the issue of Mr. McConnell’s race came up at a meeting in New Orleans this weekend of the secretive conservative umbrella group the Council for National Policy, one participant there said, the members were torn: wealthy Hollywood interests have pledged to finance the Democratic challenger, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, and some conservatives fear aiding Mr. Bevin only to see him lose the general election.
That lack of a unified conservative challenge may have been at least one factor in Mr. McConnell’s decision to come off the sidelines to engineer the deal reopening the government and raising the debt ceiling with his Democratic counterpart, Senator Harry Reid.
In an interview, Mr. McConnell all but dismissed Mr. Bevin, pointedly calling Ms. Grimes “my real opponent.” He lamented that the party division in Congress “gives me a weaker hand” when negotiating as the minority leader.
Looking to 2016
Regardless of what happens in next year’s midterms, the fight for control of the Republican Party will play out most dramatically in the contest for the 2016 presidential nomination. If a candidate from the insurgent wing is to defy recent history and seize the nomination, he or she will have to run in a fashion that, organizationally, more closely resembles the sophisticated campaigns typically waged by establishment hopefuls.
“If there’s going to be a nominee who reflects their views and values,” said the longtime conservative strategist Ralph Reed, “that candidate is also going to have to be a prolific fund-raiser, build an organization in 30 states simultaneously and have to win the support of other elected officials.”
Asked if the insurgents could nominate one of their own in 2016, former Speaker Newt Gingrich, who saw his own presidential hopes battered by an onslaught of negative TV ads financed by top contributors to Mr. Romney, said, “I think it is still very uphill because of the money.”
The Tea Party forces also lack the sort of singular leadership of a figure like Reagan. And besides overturning the health law and generally seeking to reverse the expansion of the federal government, the hard-liners do not have a cohesive policy plan.
“You have to have a specific agenda,” said Jeff Bell, a policy director in the 1976 Reagan campaign, citing the supply-side tax cuts that were so in vogue with Republicans of that era. “That’s a missing element in today’s conservative revolt.”
What some Republicans hope is that they can find a candidate with the ability to bridge the chasm between the party’s two factions, someone who is acceptable to the insurgents and will benefit from their energy but will also be able to win over swing voters.
Establishment Republicans worry that electing more hard-line conservatives will do little to address what they see as the party’s fundamental challenge with those swing voters.
“We want to elect a majority of senators and the president,” said Mr. Alexander, who is a former presidential candidate, secretary of education and governor. “And in order to do that, we’ve got to persuade the American people that they can trust us with the government. And you don’t do that by shutting down the government and defaulting on the debt.”
Then again, in the eyes of the new-era conservatives, Mr. Alexander is part of the problem.
“It’s my generation’s time to enter this fight,” said Mr. McDaniel, the newly announced Senate candidate from Mississippi. “We’re excited. We love the idea of having this conversation about the future of the country, and the future of our party.”