Soothing internal struggles seen as step on road back to White House

America Letter: the biggest gathering of grass-root conservatives in the US is under way


Velvet Cowan is wearing a tight-fitting T-shirt with pictures of two guns across her chest. “Keep your hands off of my guns,” her top says. A pink badge on her shirt reads: “Hot Chicks Republican.”

“I like Ted Cruz – he stands up for what he believes in,” said the self-described activist from North Carolina when asked who would be the best Republican presidential candidate in 2016, though she’s not sure if the senator from Texas can win the backing of everyone in the party. “It will be a hard battle. If the grassroots community come together, it might be done – the party is so divided right now,” said Cowan in a soft southern drawl.

She is among the thousands attending the Conservative Political Action Conference, the biggest gathering of grass-root conservatives in the US. Other delegates tip Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, New Mexico governor Susana Martinez and Florida senator Marco Rubio for higher office.

Radio desks piping out right-wing talk show rhetoric, stalls for conservative groups, even a make-shift studio for the National Rifle Association’s news network line the corridors of this convention centre on the banks of the Potomac river near Washington.

‘Stand for principle’
Cruz, a darling of the far-right Tea Party and savage Obama critic, opened the conference with an impassioned address calling on Republican election candidates in November’s midterm elections to “stand for principle”.

“In ’06, ’08 and ’12, we put our head down, stood for nothing, and we got walloped,” he said. When Republicans, driven by the Tea Party, stood against Obamacare, the president’s signature healthcare law, in the 2010 congressional elections they won a “historic tidal wave of an election”, he said. The firebrand Texan gives voice to far-right American conservatives who believe in smaller government, lower taxes, gun ownership and freedoms for the individual. Free-marketeers such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher are ideological deities here. “Less government, more fun”, reads the T-shirt of a libertarian contributor to a discussion on the legislation of marijuana.

There is much at stake at this year’s conference as Republicans prepare for the midterms. There are about a dozen Senate seats that could flip, double the number that the party needs to win back control of the upper house to make Congress even more obstructive for a Democratic president.

Helping Republicans to regain the Senate are billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch who have been funding attack television ads targeting vulnerable Senate and House of Representatives candidates for supporting Obamacare in states such as Louisiana, North Carolina and Montana where Democrat Senate seats are in contention.

Fresh from the scandal over bridge closures inspired by political grudges, New Jersey governor Chris Christie cut a humble figure here this year. Snubbed at last year’s conference for embracing Obama publicly after Hurricane Sandy, he was a headline act this year. Gone was his characteristic brashness; in its place a Christie who joshed the crowd about being “shy and retiring”.

In contrast to Cruz, Christie urged candidates not to be too tied to their principles and not to just to talk about what they are against. The Republican governor defended the Kochs against attacks by Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid on their influential role in American politics. “Harry Reid should get back to work and stop picking on great Americans who are creating great things in our country,” he said.

Opposing forces
Christie and Cruz represent the opposing forces within the Republican Party that drag it between centre-right and far-right. The Tea Party tail wagged the Republican dog last year when the hardliners pushed the party to oppose a budget, shutting down the government. That episode scarred the party.

Among conservatives at the conference, the internal struggle is best seen in a debate about the need for immigration reform to win back the growing Hispanic vote so Republicans have a chance of taking the White House.

Influential evangelist Reverend Luis Cortes said immigration reform could woo back Hispanics and urged Republicans to avoid “harsh rhetoric” in the debate. Derrick Morgan of the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank said only climate change polled lower as an issue. “Let’s get it out of the way and get the Hispanic people into this party so it will be the party of the majority,” said Cortes.

Afterwards, immigration advocate Alfonso Aguilar, head of the US Office of Citizenship under George W Bush, told me that if Republicans regain the Senate and control of Congress, passing immigration reform, with Democratic support, could smooth the Republican path back to the White House. Others aren’t so sure. Donald Trump told supporters he thinks 2016 will be tougher than 2012 because he believes the party will be up against Hillary Clinton.

The challenge for the party is to ensure, come election time, that the diehards don’t stick to their guns or their principles.