February 6, 2013 11:11:56 AM
WASHINGTON -- Republicans' struggles to redefine their party are intensifying, as tea party insurgents and establishment Republicans vie to control congressional primaries, and GOP leaders try to expand their focus beyond the deficit.
Grassroots conservatives are condemning a new bid by wealthy donors to vet future Senate and House nominees. The donors say they want to weed out weak and gaffe-prone candidates. But tea party activists fear the real target is uncompromising conservatives.
All sides agree on one thing: their frustration and soul-searching are driven by recent losses of several Senate seats, and a presidential race that once seemed winnable.
"All events point to a fundamental clash between the old guard Republican establishment, dictating outdated ideas from the top down, versus a tech-savvy younger generation of activists driving their agenda from the bottom up," said Matt Kibbe of the tea party-affiliated group FreedomWorks.
Kibbe and others are criticizing a newly formed political action committee that plans to involve itself heavily in selected Senate and House GOP primaries. The PAC, Conservative Victory Project, is headed by Karl Rove and other strategists affiliated with mainstream Republicans, including former president George W. Bush.
Rove and his allies oversee other groups that spent heavily in the 2012 general elections. But they rarely got involved in Republican congressional primaries. The new group -- likely to be funded by the same wealthy supporters -- plans to change that.
Republicans lost several recent Senate races that they might have won "with more careful candidate vetting and more careful recruiting," said Steven Law, who will head the new PAC.
Establishment Republicans feel they could have won Senate races in Delaware, Nevada and Colorado in 2010 -- and races in Missouri and Indiana last year -- if they had nominated more orthodox and disciplined candidates. Democratic spending in some cases helped steer the Republican nominations to tea party activists or other conservatives who proved to be shaky candidates in November.
The GOP nominees in Missouri and Indiana particularly damaged themselves with remarks about rape and pregnancy.
The goal, Law said, is to nominate "the most conservative candidate who can win." The new effort, he said, "has been mischaracterized as an establishment move against the tea party, and it isn't."
Amy Kremer of the Tea Party Express, however, said the new group "wants to push the Tea Party out and replace them with the failed strategies of 2008 and 2012."