We have been watching Groundswell, the grassroots conservative organization responsible for pushing the IRS “scandal,” the government shutdown over Obamacare funding, and other contrived controversies on the House Republican caucus. The group’s feud with Karl Rove was an early indicator that by pushing Republicans to extremes, Groundswell was courting a civil war with the Republican establishment.
On Wednesday, that internal fight spilled out into the open when Speaker of the House John Beohner called conservative outside groups’ opposition to the Paul Ryan budget deal “ridiculous” and the Republican Study Committee fired executive director Paul Teller for leaking his conversations with lawmakers to those same outside groups.
“Paul was divulging private, member level conversations and actively working against strategies developed by RSC members,” said the senior GOP aide familiar with the group. “Trust between senior staff and RSC members is paramount. No staffer is above a member.”
If there were any staffer on Capitol Hill that were nearly as powerful as a member of Congress, it was Teller. He has been involved in conservative strategy for more than a decade, helping drag legislative debates to the right. But he often chafed on Republican leadership, who saw him as causing intra-party drama.
Teller and the Republican Study Committee were very active in the Groundswell Listserv, and Teller was actually the group’s point of contact for debt ceiling negotiations. As Dave Weigel notes, Teller’s interactions with outside groups had gotten him in trouble during the 2011 debt ceiling negotiations, too.
It was nearly two and a half years ago that Teller was caught strategizing with outside conservative groups that were then demanding total purity from the GOP conference. At that time many Republicans called on the RSC to sack Teller. He survived; new RSC Chairman Steve Scalise, in late 2012, promised to keep him on. That he’s out now is a clear signal from the leadership to the conservatives: Stop playing games with the wolves outside. You want to vote “no,” you count on it being a stunt vote that doesn’t imperil passage.
The Washington Post reports that Teller had refused to give up the fight to de-fund the Affordable Care Act, but was almost alone in that fight at the RSC. While the proximate cause of this conflict between the party and its grassroots is a budget deal that Teller was working to scuttle over the ACA, the fight had been brewing for months over primary challenges against establishment Republicans.
McConnell has declared war against his chief conservative nemesis, the Senate Conservatives Fund, blacklisting consultants and candidates doing business with the group. The Chamber of Commerce is now willing to involve itself in primaries, already spending six-figures in an Alabama Congressional runoff between an establishment Republican and a grassroots conservative. Even Boehner, who has been criticized for bowing to his right flank, hit back at them today, saying opponents of the budget deal were “using our members and… using the American people for their own goals.”
Many Republicans believe counter-attacks by the establishment is exactly the formula for unifying the party. It’s time for more sticks than carrots, the thinking goes. But that ignores the fact that conservative voters are driving the rise of outside groups, not the other way around. These are the voters who hated the bank bailouts, resent campaign committee involvement in Republican primaries, and think politicians are too quick to “go Washington” when elected, enjoying the perks of power over the principles of politics.
As you might expect, Groundswellers are angry about Teller’s firing. The conservative For America organization issued a press release signed by a list of outraged Groundswell leaders. Whereas one might see this story as a conflict between the activist tea party base and the establishment party, the fight is really between outside and inside leadership: those who would lead the party are at war with the members actually in office. We are used to seeing that kind of tension between the left and Democrats, but it is usually much less visible on the right.
We will stay on top of this story as it develops.