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Conservative Activists Pushing Republican Party to Right

In U.S. politics, conservative activists around the country are seeking to push the Republican Party to the right this year, and some moderate Republicans are feeling the political heat.

In a number of races around the country, strains are developing between some traditional Republican candidates and more conservative politicians who want to return the party to what they believe are its more conservative roots.

Take the case of a Senate race in Florida that is getting national attention.

In 2008, Florida's Republican governor, Charlie Crist, was so popular that some Republicans touted him as a possible vice presidential running mate for presidential nominee John McCain.

Less than two years later, Crist has left the Republican Party to run as an independent candidate in the race for a U.S. Senate seat in Florida, after realizing it was going to be impossible for him to win the Republican primary.

Crist spoke about his unusual decision on NBC's Today program.

"And consistently they have said to me, be your own person, be your own man," said Crist. "We need a voice and we need somebody to speak for us and rise above partisan politics, just go to the people."

Crist was forced to abandon his quest for the Republican Senate nomination because he was badly trailing former state legislator Marco Rubio in the primary race.

Rubio sees Crist's transformation from Republican to independent as a political stunt.

"Voters are tired of being manipulated. I am not going to go out there and reinvent myself to manipulate somebody's vote," said Rubio.

Polls showed Rubio trouncing Crist in the Republican primary, but recent polls give Crist a better chance to win the Senate seat running as an independent in November against Republican Rubio and Democratic candidate Kendrick Meek.

"Crist running as an independent has a much greater likelihood of hurting the Republicans than helping them," noted Georgetown University political scientist Stephen Wayne.

Political experts see Governor Crist's decision to run as an independent as the latest example of a growing trend in U.S. politics.

"I think it is a symptom of the political polarization, which has afflicted the United States now for some time," said Rutgers University political analyst Ross Baker. Baker says moderates in both parties have increasingly been squeezed out in recent years.

"The most vocal and most active members of both political parties, on the Democratic side they tend to be the most liberal and on the Republican side they tend to be the most conservative," noted Baker. "Therefore, people who do not measure up to their test of what a proper Democrat or a proper Republican is, are likely to suffer."

This trend makes it harder for Democrats and Republicans in Congress to compromise and find common ground, says Georgetown University expert Stephen Wayne.

"We have become a nation of extremes, at least within our government, with the liberals on the Democratic side and the conservatives on the Republican side over-represented in the Congress of the United States," explained Stephen Wayne.

In the case of the Florida Senate race, Republican Marco Rubio's campaign has also been aided by the so-called Tea Party movement. Tea Party grassroots conservative activists rallied behind Rubio early on, believing he is a more reliable conservative than Governor Crist.

It is a scenario that could play out in other races around the country during the next several months, says Georgetown's Stephen Wayne.

"I think in the long run what this does is to contribute to what seems to be occurring right now and that is the retrenchment of the Republican Party, opting for purity of ideological beliefs rather than a broad-based appeal to the general public," said Wayne.

Tea Party activists seem more focused on shifting the Republican Party in a more conservative direction than in forming their own political party.

In the short term, most analysts believe the grassroots energy coming from the Tea Party activists will help Republican candidates in November. It is expected that Democrats will have a tougher challenge in motivating their supporters to get out to vote this year.

Historically, the party that controls the White House loses Congressional seats in a new president's first midterm election.

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    Jim Malone

    Jim Malone has served as VOA’s National correspondent covering U.S. elections and politics since 1995. Prior to that he was a VOA congressional correspondent and served as VOA’s East Africa Correspondent from 1986 to 1990. Jim began his VOA career with the English to Africa Service in 1983.