WASHINGTON (AP) — A year after losing a presidential race many Republicans thought was winnable, the party arguably is in worse shape than before, struggling to control tensions between its upstart tea party movement and pro-business establishment and watching approval ratings sink to record lows.
It's almost quaint to recall that soon after Mitt Romney lost to President Barack Obama last November, the Republican National Committee recommended only one policy change: endorsing an immigration overhaul, in hopes of attracting Hispanic voters. Even that is in jeopardy, as an immigration bill struggles for life in the Republican-run House of Representatives.
The bigger worry for many party leaders is the growing rift between business-oriented Republicans and the party's more ideological tea party wing, and whether that divide will hurt its electoral chances in next year's congressional midterm elections and the 2016 presidential campaign.
Each side accuses the other of bungling this month's debt ceiling and government shutdown dramas, widely seen as a major Republican embarrassment. Polls show the Republicans taking a big hit for the fiscal showdown, which led the U.S. to the brink of a potentially devastating debt default. Tea party-aligned House members sparked the crisis when they demanded Obama gut his own health care overhaul in exchange for re-opening the government and increasing the debt limit so it could pay its bills.
The party establishment is now watching anxiously as a conservative nominee trails in a Virginia governor's race that history says a Republican should win. The anti-tax, limited government tea party movement has again taken aim at uprooting Republican senators it sees as too willing to compromise. And with the 2016 presidential election already looming, some Republicans are dreading a replay of the primary battles that bruised Romney, who was forced to defend his right flank from constant conservative attacks.
Amid the turmoil, it's hard to recall when Republicans seemed so leaderless. Romney has returned to private life. President George W. Bush keeps a limited profile. Potential rising stars have stumbled, as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida did when he angered conservative activists by pushing the immigration measure through the Senate.
Eyeing this troubling landscape, many Republican campaign veterans hope conservative die-hards will narrow their differences with the party's more pragmatic members and seek to unite over the common goal of taking back the Senate from the Democrats next year.
The party's divide remains on display in the Senate, however. Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is preoccupied with his Kentucky re-election bid, squeezed between a tea party-backed primary challenger on the right and a well-regarded Democrat on the left.
The specter of Republican primaries that decide nominees disturbs many party loyalists. In the past two Senate elections, tea party-backed insurgents defeated nearly a dozen mainstream Republicans — three of them incumbent senators — in primaries. Campaign professionals say the results cost Republicans up to five Senate seats they could have won if their nominees for general elections were not tea-party candidates who proved to be too conservative for mainstream voters.
Yet for a third straight election cycle, the tea party movement hopes to oust Republican incumbents they view as too willing to work with Democrats. Those targets could include 35-year veteran Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, whose resume includes managing the 1998 effort to impeach President Bill Clinton.
Now there's talk of an establishment Republican counterrevolution, in which business-oriented candidates would challenge tea party incumbents in next year's primaries. It's not clear whether more than a handful of such challenges will emerge.
A bigger question is whether business groups, often supportive of Republicans of all ideological types, will steer more money into bids to oust tea partyers who played down the threat of a federal default during this month's standoff.
Some Republicans say the situation isn't so dire. Republican Gov. Chris Christie, a potential presidential candidate, is coasting toward re-election next month in Democratic-leaning New Jersey. Many throughout the U.S. are complaining about the troubled sign-up process for Obama's health care law, the Republicans' favorite policy target.
Talk of a party rift "is way overplayed," said Henry Barbour, an activist from Mississippi and co-author of the RNC's post-mortem report on Romney's loss. He said Republicans of all stripes overwhelmingly agree on basic issues, including reduced federal spending, opposition to the health law and "preserving freedom."
But Barbour agreed that top Republicans differ over tactics. He took issue with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who championed House Republicans' ultimately doomed drive to block Obama's health care law by taking the federal budget hostage.
Peter A. Wish, a veteran Republican fundraiser from Florida, said the activists he talks with are "pretty much divided" over the fallout from the debt and shutdown debates. Some support Cruz's hard-line stand "regardless of the consequences," Wish said. But another faction, he said, "is totally fed up" with an ideological group "picking fights it can't win."
Sara Taylor Fagen, who directed political affairs in Bush's White House, acknowledged newfound tensions between business-oriented and tea-party Republicans. It will be hard to close the rift between the two factions, Fagen said.
"If we don't find common ground and stand on the same side of the line, we're going to have a very ugly and rough couple of years," she said.
Associated Press writers Charles Babington and Ken Thomas in Washington, Bill Barrow in Atlanta, Steve Peoples in Boston and Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
Original headline: A year after big loss, Republican woes run deeper
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