Is the Republican Party headed toward civil war?

11:04 AM, Feb 6, 2013   |    comments
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(CBS NEWS) -- For anyone who sees Mitt Romney's loss in the November presidential election as a harbinger of GOP decline, conservatives have a message - make that two, tellingly conflicting, messages.

One, embodied by the Conservative Victory Project (CVP) - a group backed by Karl Rove's "super PAC" seeking to curb influence from far-right organizations - and spelled out Tuesday by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.: Our olive branch is ripe, Democrats, and with the right legislation, we're willing to compromise.

The other, perhaps best summarized in paperwork filed today by ousted Rep. Joe Walsh, R-Ill., to create a "super PAC" countering Rove's: The tea party that in 2010 ushered into Washington a wave of staunch conservative ideologues isn't going away.

The Rove group's formation was just the most explicit among intensifying calls to inject discipline into a Congress that has seen unprecedented gridlock, particularly on critical economic issues.

Gov. Bobby Jindal, R-La. - a favorite on 2016 speculation lists - at a GOP retreat last month said, "We've got to stop being the stupid party," and called on his fellow Republicans to start talking "like adults." Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga. and Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., appearing subsequently on CBS News programs, rushed to condone the remarks. "I think we clearly have to change," Gingrich said.

Meanwhile, Cantor's speech at the American Enterprise Institute on Tuesday brought substance to the argument, not to mention a glimpse into what the tone of the newly minted 113th Congress might be. Reviewed largely as a recasting of the Republican Party's image, Cantor's remarks offered a striking departure from the partisan battles that in the past few years have brought the government more than once to the brink of crisis. Rather than emphasizing spending cuts, he spoke of the economy from an American family standpoint; most drastically, he also endorsed immigration principles of the Dream Act.

"There are some who would rather avoid fixing the problem in order to save this as a political issue," Cantor said of immigration reform proposals currently making their way through congressional committees. "I reject this notion and call on the president to help lead us towards a bipartisan solution rather than encourage the common political divisions of the past."

While announcing gun trafficking legislation today, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said he was "very encouraged" by the House majority leader's speech. "I think he clearly opened the door for the House to move on meaningful legislation," he said. "Maybe, just maybe, this is the beginning of opening doors."

But despite some who believe the tea party peaked with its influx of dogma-driven freshmen in 2010, the grassroots activist group is sounding off about this new push toward the center. Statements from the various factions of the movement have echoed the sentiment expressed on Nov. 7 by Tea Party Patriots coordinator Jenny Beth Martin, blaming President Obama's reelection on the GOP's nomination of Romney - "a weak moderate candidate, hand-picked by the Beltway elites and country-club establishment wing of the Republican Party."

Even Tea Party Express chairwoman Amy Kremer, who despite early criticism ultimately supported Romney, and who, during the near-government-shutdown ordeal of 2011, advocated "realistic" pragmatism in budget negotiations, in a statement Monday pointed to "the biggest Republican victories in modern American politics" as indicative that CVP won't be successful.

"Reagan's victories in the 1980s, Newt Gingrich and the Republican revolution of 1994, and the Tea Party's historic wins in 2010 were all made possible because the Republican Party, and its candidates, stood strongly and proudly for pro-growth fiscal conservative policies," Kremer said. "The newly launched Conservative Victory Project wants to push the tea party out and replace them with the failed strategies of 2008 and 2012. This Super PAC is choosing power of principle, but will end up alienating conservatives and electoral losses.

"If the establishment's large donors want to see a complete electoral catastrophe, then all they need to do is push tea party conservatives into supporting alternative third candidates," she continued.

FreedomWorks, another powerhouse tea party fundraising group that suffered from its own infighting in December, also put out a statement, touting the "leadership" of the movement's heroes like Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, and warned, "the Empire is striking back."

"A clear pattern has emerged, beginning with the GOP leadership's efforts to silence delegates on the floor of the RNC, continuing with House Leadership's purge of fiscally conservative congressmen from their committee positions for voting out of line with the GOP establishment," spokeswoman Jacqueline Bodnar wrote. "Now, an Orwellian-named 'Conservative Victory Project' is created with the sole operating mission of blocking the efforts of fiscally conservative activists across the country.

"All events point to a fundamental clash between the old guard Republican establishment, dictating outdated ideas from the top-down, versus a tech-savvy younger generation of activists driving their agenda from the bottom-up," the statement continued.

CVP spokesman Jonathan Collegio said in an email to CBSNews.com that his group's goal "isn't to divide the party," but to "institutionalize the William F Buckley rule by supporting the most conservative candidate in the primary who can win in the general."

"...Our party has lost a number of races in recent years, both by so-called 'establishment' candidates and tea party candidates, not because of bad messages but bad messengers: undisciplined candidates with little local support and who lacked the fundraising prowess necessary to win campaigns," Collegio continued. "To win more races, we need better candidates, and that's what this group will support."

Collegio said CVP has not yet made a list of specific races they will target because "it's too early," but some reports suggest Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who says he is "50-50" on whether to make a bid for retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin's seat, may be the group's most obvious starting point. King has been known to rally with firebrand Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., who founded the House Tea Party Caucus and almost lost her seat in November after an unsuccessful run for the White House. Bachmann's office declined to comment for this article.

Though early polls show King with solid footing in the Hawkeye State, Steven Law, president of Rove's "super PAC" American Crossroads, told the New York Times the CVP is "concerned about Steve King's Todd Akin problem," referring to King's defense of the former Missouri congressman and Senate candidate's incendiary remarks about "legitimate rape." King, too, has been known to offer controversial statements, including his critique of Mr. Obama's middle name "Hussein" as a hindering factor in winning the "War on Terror."

Another target may be tea party Rep. Paul Brown, R-Ga., who is expected to announce today his intention to seek the seat of retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga. Broun has bagged his share of controversy as well, having had his say in the "birther" movement questioning the president's citizenship, and opining that "all that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell."

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