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Hitching Wagon to Tea Partiers, Steele Threatens to ‘Come After’ GOP Moderates

This is kind of remarkable. In an interview with ABC’s “Top Line,” Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele pretty overtly sought to align the GOP with the burgeoning conservative Tea Party movement, threatening to “come after” moderate Republicans who side with Democrats on hot-button issues.

“So candidates who live in moderate to slightly liberal districts have got to walk a little bit carefully here, because you do not want to put yourself in a position where you’re crossing that line on conservative principles, fiscal principles, because we’ll come after you,” Steele continued.

“You’re gonna find yourself in a very tough hole if you’re arguing for the president’s stimulus plan or Nancy Pelosi’s health plan. There’s no justification for growing the size of government the way this administration and this Congress wants to do it.”

It’s not surprising that Steele and the Republican Party would try to harness the Tea Party movement for an electoral advantage, but the events in the NY-23 special election should make clear that’s a risky proposition. In a moderate Republican district in upstate New York that had not elected a Democrat since the 1870s, a Tea Party-backed, Club for Growth-funded conservative succeeded in forcing a moderate Republican out of the race, only to lose to a moderate Democrat.

It’s no secret that Republicans representing “moderate to slightly liberal districts” tend to be moderate because in many cases a hard-line conservative running in the district would lose to a moderate Democrat. And once elected, moderates in these districts need to continue to appeal to moderate voters in order to get reelected, often by occasionally working with the other party. Granted, the number of moderate Republicans in Congress who Steele is talking about “coming after” — presumably through primary challenges from the right — is small. But the effect of a strategy like the one Steele is threatening would very likely be to drive remaining moderates out of the party — either through primary losses or party-switching à la Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) — and thereby shrink the GOP caucus even further in the name of ideological purity.

It’s particularly noteworthy since TWI asked Steele about this very issue yesterday, and he responded that winning is more important than maintaining ideological purity. “I don’t see a victory in losing seats,” he said. “I’m not in the business of division and subtraction. I’m in the business of multiplication and addition. I want more Republicans going to Congress.”

(Via Ben Smith)

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