TIME columnist, GOP consultant predicts intraparty battle

The latest presidential election paves the way for a major fight over the Republican Party’s future, according to GOP consultant and TIME columnist Mike Murphy.

A debate will now rage inside the GOP between the purists, who will as always call for more purity, and the pragmatists, who will demand modernization. The media, always culturally alien to intra-Republican struggles, will badly mislabel this contest as one between “moderate” and “right-wing” Republicans. In fact, the epic battle we Republicans face now is a choice between two definitions of conservatism.

One offers steadfast opposition to emerging social trends like multiculturalism and secularization. The alternative is a more secular and modernizing conservatism that eschews most social issues to focus on creating a wide-open opportunity society that promises greater economic freedom and the reform of government institutions like schools that are vital to upward social mobility.

The battle lines are already drawn. While the electoral arithmetic is obvious, teaching basic math to a political party is no simple matter. The lesson usually requires the heavy hammer of multiple crushing and painful election defeats. Whether the GOP has learned its lesson yet is the big question. The party’s biggest funders, mostly hardheaded business types, are in shock and high dudgeon after providing a virtual blank check to a GOP apparatus that promised much and delivered very little. Among this group, there is much frustration with the party’s perceived focus on divisive social issues and even some dark talk of a donor strike.

But in the precincts of movement and social conservatives, an opposite battle cry is sounding. In late November, Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, whose tireless work to recruit unelectable GOP candidates in 2010 did more to help keep Harry Reid Senate majority leader than the work of any single Democrat, lobbed one of the first grenades. He denounced newly announced Republican Senate candidate Representative Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia as being ideologically unacceptable, despite the fact that Capito narrowly leads Democratic incumbent Jay Rockefeller in a poll of the prospective race.

Which points to another, often ignored, GOP weakness: Republicans tend to be more competitive in off-year elections, when voter turnout is far lower than in presidential years and the electorate is therefore older, whiter and more Republican. It is possible for the GOP to do well in 2014, especially because so many vulnerable Democratic Senators in GOP-leaning states face re-election. But like the Republican off-year successes of 2010, a few non-presidential-year victories, while welcome, would also provide the GOP with a highly misleading dead-cat bounce. The electorate in 2016 will look much like the electorate this year, albeit even more Hispanic and more challenging for the GOP. And the overall demographic trends that are burying the current Republican coalition will only become stronger with time.

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