Republicans plunged into civil war as Tea Party takes on the old guard

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Tuesday night was a triumph for the party – but Washington's radical newcomers are now challenging the traditionalists

Just as resurgent Republicans served notice yesterday that they mean to take down President Barack Obama in two years and stymie his healthcare reforms along the way, signs were emerging of a civil war pitting old-guard moderates against the new class of purist-conservatives sent to Washington on a Tea Party wave.

Barely was the champagne drained after the seat-grab in the House of Representatives than recriminations were breaking out over the party's failure to take the Senate too. Some blamed the party's right wing, including Sarah Palin, for backing extremist candidates who lost "winnable" contests.

"Candidates matter," said the veteran Republican senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. "It was a good night for Republicans but it could have been a better one. We left some on the table." Two states he surely had in mind were Delaware and Nevada, where Republicans respectively fielded Christine O'Donnell, who was dogged by witch stories from her past, and Sharron Angle, who became best known in the media for avoiding the media.

The dilemmas for the party's leadership are acute. Mitch McConnell, the top Senate Republican, gave a nod to the new conservative caucus on Capitol Hill with a hard-line speech at the Heritage Foundation in which he stuck by his assertion made just before Tuesday's voting that getting Mr Obama out of the White House was his first goal.

But Mr McConnell and Representative John Boehner, who will almost certainly be the next House Speaker, cannot be sure that a confrontational approach won't backfire on them at the next round of voting in 2012. For his part, Mr Obama took the alternative road last night, offering to host a summit of congressional leaders at the White House on 18 November immediately after his return from a long trip to India and Asia that begins today.

"Mr Boehner will [find it hard] handling the factions in the majority coalition," said Carl Pinkele, who teaches political science at Ohio Wesleyan University. "There are going to be rigid Tea Party types. Boehner will be obligated to the Tea Party, and to establishment Republicans who chair committees."

How, for example, will he handle the newly emboldened Michele Bachmann from Minnesota, who won re-election with her commitment to the Tea Party precepts of smaller government, lower taxes and adherence to the Constitution? Anathema to many in the old guard, she is expected to seek election as leader of the House Conference Committee, which would make her the fourth most senior House Republican.

The conservatives arriving on Capitol Hill "need a loud and clear voice," said her spokesman Sergio Gor. "And that's why Michele Bachmann is running." Party leaders have already endorsed moderate Texan Jeb Hensarling for the job, however. If Ms Bachmann pushes hard, a nasty internecine squabble will begin.

And although she is not there, Ms Palin's shadow looms larger than ever over Capitol Hill. Yesterday she re

leased a celebratory video. "This is our movement. This is our moment. This is our morning in America," she says. "We're gonna stand up and we're gonna speak out. And it may take some renegades going rogue to get us there."

For now, the party needs to stop its second-guessing over the Senate candidates. Another disappointment came in Colorado, where Democrat Michael Bennet held off Tea Party challenger Ken Buck. And in Alaska, Joe Miller, championed by Ms Palin, has probably lost to a moderate Republican who ran as a write-in, Lisa Murkowski.

Senator Graham was scathing about the process that made Ms O'Donnell the candidate in Delaware. "If you think what happened in Delaware is 'a win' for the Republican Party then we don't have a snowball's chance to win the White House," he said. "If you think Delaware was a wake-up call for Republicans, then we have."

Trent Lott, the former Senate Majority Leader and Republican icon regretted that the candidates chosen to run in Nevada, Delaware and Colorado were blocked by the party's new conservative wing. "With those three we would have won and been sitting at 50 in the Senate," he said.

While Ms Palin was responsible for some of the choices of candidates – of the 11 Senate candidates she championed, six in fact won – equally active was Jim DeMint, the exorbitantly right-wing senator from South Carolina who himself won re-election. "I'm glad Jim DeMint is serving as the loyal opposition within our party," Julie Wadler, a party fundraiser and strategist, bitterly told Politico.

Some expect Messrs McConnell and Boehner respectively to play bad cop, good cop with respect to the White House. That seemed the strategy yesterday at the Heritage Foundation where Mr McConnell took aim at the President and his healthcare reforms.

"If our primary legislative goals are to repeal and replace the health spending bill, to end the bailouts, cut spending and shrink the size and scope of government, the only way to do all these things is to put someone in the White House who won't veto any of these things," Senator McConnell told the audience. "If the administration wants co-operation, it will have to begin to move in our direction."

For their part, conservatives are denying that their candidate choices cost the party the Senate, arguing that party money was spent in the wrong places. Even the hapless Ms O'Donnell and Ms Angle might have prevailed if the party bigwigs had been less snobbish about them, the conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh suggested. Ms O'Donnell "could have won were it not for all the backbiting after her primary victory," he said.

The reaction: US broadsheets reflect on Tuesday's results

The New York Times

"Tuesday's election was indeed a "shellacking" for the Democrats, as President Obama admitted after a long night of bad news. It was hardly an order from the American people to discard the progress of the past two years and start over again."

The Washington Post

"Mr Obama did not exactly sound chastened – although he allowed that "it feels bad" to see so many lawmakers who supported his policies lose their seats. We would have preferred to see more in the way of a presidential acknowledgement that voters' reaction might be more than simple misperception on their part or failure to communicate adequately on his."

The Wall Street Journal

"John Boehner is no Newt Gingrich, which suits the current public mood. Americans have had their fill of triumphalism and revolution in a House Speaker. But Barack Obama is also no Bill Clinton, a President with a gift for tactical politics and compromise. And therein lies the drama of the next two years as we return to divided government. We are probably destined more for gridlock than accomplishment, which after the last two years is an accomplishment itself."

The Los Angeles Times

"Tuesday's results are hardly astonishing; indeed, they are more part of a trend than an aberration. Nevertheless, they do reveal powerful forces at work in our politics today. The anxieties spurred by the recession have given way to a broader unease, an inchoate sense that government is too big, too intrusive, too demanding."

The Washington Times

"The world's most exclusive country club, the US Senate, is in for a shock come January. Five Republicans handed their membership cards Tuesday have promised to shake up the chamber... After such a successful surge from the right, 2010 results should put to rest the tired cliche that running to the center is the ticket to success for national office. This Fab Five show us otherwise. They are the new mainstream."

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