DES MOINES, Iowa — From county chairmen to national party luminaries, veteran Republicans across the country are accusing tea party lawmakers of staining the GOP with their refusal to bend in the budget impasse in Washington.
The Republican establishment also is signaling a willingness to strike back at the tea party in next fall’s elections.
“It’s time for someone to act like a grown-up in this process,” former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu argues, faulting Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and tea party Republicans in the House as much as President Barack Obama for taking an uncompromising stance.
Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is just as pointed, saying this about the tea party-fueled refusal to support spending measures that include money for Obama’s health care law: “It never had a chance.”
The anger emanating from Republicans like Sununu and Barbour comes just three years after the GOP embraced the insurgent political group and rode its wave of new energy to return to power in the House.
Now, they’re lashing out with polls showing Republicans bearing most of the blame for the federal shutdown, which entered its 11th day Friday. In some places, they’re laying the groundwork to take action against the tea party in the 2014 congressional elections.
Iowa Republicans are recruiting a pro-business Republican to challenge six-term conservative Rep. Steve King, a leader in the push to defund the health care law. Disgruntled Republicans are further ahead in Michigan, where second-term, tea party-backed Rep. Justin Amash is facing a Republican primary challenger who is more in line with — and being encouraged by — the party establishment. And business interest groups, long aligned with the Republican Party, also are threatening to recruit and fund strong challengers to tea party House members.
Tea party backers are undeterred and assail party leaders.
“They keep compromising,” said Katrina Pierson, a former Dallas-area tea party organizer now challenging Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas in the 2014 GOP primary. “They all campaigned on fiscal responsibility. They just need to do what they campaigned on.”
In more than a dozen interviews, Republican leaders, officials and strategists at all levels of the party blamed Obama for the shutdown but also faulted tea party lawmakers in the House, who have insisted that any deal to reopen the government be contingent on stripping money for the health care law.
An Associated Press-GfK poll released Wednesday showed why these party loyalists are so concerned: More Republicans told pollsters that the GOP is mishandling the shutdown than is handling it well. And among those who say it’s being poorly handled, twice as many Republicans say the party is not doing enough to negotiate with Obama than those who say the party is doing too much.
Party leaders interviewed said the tea party’s demands to defund the health care law — and the House leadership’s willingness to follow suit — were distracting from what they said is the GOP’s best strategy to recover from its 2012 losses: a focus on reducing long-term spending. They said defunding the health care law would not achieve that goal because the money was already flowing to the law.
“At the end of the day, you’re fighting legislation that’s already passed,” said former South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson, describing the fight to defund the health care law as a lost cause.
Republican activists around the country also said in interviews that the shutdown — and House Republicans’ demands — have deflected attention from problems with the launch of key parts to the health care bill.
Thousands of Americans were unable to shop for health insurance on the online marketplaces when they went live on Oct. 1 because of software glitches. And, these Republicans say, the GOP in Washington — and specifically tea party House members — got in the way of the troubled rollout, which the GOP could have seized on if the government were still open.
“We’re not saying Obama is right. We’re saying what Republicans are doing is wrong,” said Matt Cox, a former executive director of Ohio’s Cuyahoga County GOP. He said that instead of pursuing the shutdown strategy, Republicans in Washington could have passed — and taken credit for — a spending measure that kept dollar levels at those set by the automatic $1.2 trillion across-the-board cut approved last year, also called the sequester.
Generally, these Republicans said that because of the tea party’s effort to defund the health care law, the Republican Party had missed an opportunity to hammer Obama after he hit a rough patch over Syria just a month ago.
Former Illinois state Sen. Laura Douglas wants to believe that the holdouts can win. But she has her doubts.
“My heart says, ‘Keep fighting, don’t give up,'” said Douglas, a resident of Quincy in western Illinois. “But my head says, ‘If we keep this kind of thing up, we’re going to get creamed next year.'”
Her worries are reflected in the AP-GfK poll. Roughly three-quarters of Republicans nationally said their party in Congress deserves a moderate degree or most of the blame for the shutdown.
Even among Republicans, those who don’t support the tea party mostly disapprove of how the GOP is handling the budget issue. Just 17 percent of Americans overall consider themselves tea party backers.
And tea party allies are fighting back.
The Senate Conservatives Fund, an independent political action committee, has run ads asking tea party supporters to recruit primary election opponents for Republicans who voted for a measure that would have kept the government running with modifications in the health care law.
In South Carolina, Fairfield County Republican Chairman Kevin Thomas is among those on the side of tea party lawmakers.
“The only leverage we have is the budget,” he said.