Boehner takes on activist right as GOP civil war continues

The speaker of the House's verbal sparring with the activist right showcases the GOP's internal divisions

Topics: John Boehner, The Club for Growth, The Senate Conservatives Fund, Heritage Action, Dan Holler, Mitch McConnell, ,

Speaker of the House John Boehner’s battle against the activist right continues apace.

According to a recent report from the New York Times, Boehner told his fellow Republicans during a closed-door, private meeting that the activist right — embodied by conservative groups like the Club for Growth, Heritage Action and the Senate Conservatives Fund — is not fighting for conservatism’s best interests. “They are not fighting for conservative principles,” Boehner said, according to the Times. “They are not fighting for conservative policy. They are fighting to expand their lists, raise more money and grow their organizations, and they are using you to do it. It’s ridiculous.”

At the heart of Boehner’s antipathy for the activist right is a lingering resentment over the recent government shutdown, which badly damaged the GOP’s brand while resulting in essentially no substantive policy gains. “The shutdown was the first time a group largely drove the Republican Party in the Senate towards something that was disadvantageous,” one top GOP Senate official told the Times.

Further, Republican leadership is increasingly coming to see the activist right’s fondness for launching primary challenges as a significant threat to the party’s chances of reclaiming control of the Senate in 2014. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who would assume the Majority Leader position if Republicans were to win back the Senate, has increasingly come to criticize the activist right, too. McConnell is facing a primary challenge from Matt Bevin, who is supported by many members of the activist right.

But these conservative groups are not willing to go down without a fight. Dan Holler, the communications director for Heritage Action, told the Times that Boehner’s charges were “absurd” and a distraction. “Only in Washington could you have guys who go to PAC fund-raisers at swanky restaurants accuse outside groups of doing something for fund-raising,” Holler told the Times. “It is one of those petty attacks that is intended to shift the conversation away from the policy.”

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The activists also say the effort to point to the shutdown as a rationale for trying to limit the clout of the groups is something of a feint to disguise the fact that some House Republicans felt hemmed in by the existing spending levels and were eager to generate some new money through the budget deal.

“There are a lot of Republican appropriators and Armed Services Committee members who hate being limited to $967 billion,” said Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity, another group that strongly opposes the budget plan. Without a deal, discretionary spending would be reduced to that level next month under sequestration cuts.

Activists differed on the political fallout from the intensifying feud. But at a minimum, one warned, it has the potential to sap energy from the conservative base that will be critical for the party in the midterm elections. Others said it would almost certainly fuel efforts by movement conservatives to challenge incumbent Republicans and try to move the party further to the right.

“It’s time for Americans to rise up and begin replacing establishment Republicans with true conservatives in the 2014 primary elections,” said Matt Hoskins, the executive director of the Senate Conservatives Fund, the group that has drawn Mr. McConnell’s wrath. “There’s no question anymore about where these leaders stand.”

Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a staff writer at Salon, focusing on politics. Follow him on Twitter at @eliasisquith.

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