State Races Reveal GOP Power Struggle

There's a battle going on within the Republican Party over pure conservatism. Party rivals in some races are rushing to tout their conservative accolades. However the party's push to the right could turn off independents.

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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

As the Republican Party restocks its ranks of young office holders, it's also going through a power struggle. It's most visible in contests for state wide offices. In 2010 there will be highly contentious primaries for the party's biggest nominations in some of the biggest states, including several in the south, the party's strongest region. Joining us to talk about the rivalries and the ideas is NPR news analyst Juan Williams.

Hi.

JUAN WILLIAMS: How you doing, Ari?

SHAPIRO: I'm good. So let's start with Texas. We have a governor's race here that looks like one of the marquis contests. On one side, there's two-term Governor Rick Perry; on the other side there is third-term Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. Both are popular. Texas is a very Republican state, and the Senator thinks the governor should retire.

WILLIAMS: Well, she's thought this for a while and thought she had his pledge, that he was going to retire. But what you have here is playing out, I think, this larger national phenomenon that you touched on - which is you have, now, Perry, running as the populist angry face, almost attaching himself to like tea party elements in the Republican party, pointing to Hutchison and saying wait a minute, she's part of Washington, D.C. She's part of this elite, the big spenders. And then she is firing back at him that he is now part of this inflexible, intolerant right wing in the party, and so it has become this intense rivalry, again based on who is more conservative.

SHAPIRO: Well, that question of who is more conservative, who is more ideologically pure, seems even more pronounced in another race, a Senate race in another major southern state which is Florida.

WILLIAMS: Right, there you have a former Florida House speaker, Marco Rubio, running against Governor Charlie Crist. Marco Rubio has become sort of the buzz among hard conservatives, picking up Club for Growth endorsement, Club for Growth anti-tax group. What they do is that they point that Charlie Crist, as governor, was embracing Barack Obama, embracing federal stimulus spending. And what has happened is that Charlie Crist, who had like a 30 percentage point lead, has seen it shrink, now, to about 13 percentage points. And Charlie Crist is having to become aggressive about laying out his conservative credentials, getting on the air earlier, and this again, is emblematic of the crisis taking place within the party.

SHAPIRO: What do we see in Kentucky, where there's another hotly contested Senate race brought on by the retirement of Senator Jim Bunning?

WILLIAMS: Well you have, Trey Grayson, who was the secretary of state and who thought that he was the natural heir. He is kind of the official Republican candidate there. But all of a sudden you have an insurgent, and again it's a insurgent who is running and claiming that, you know, the likely candidate is not sufficiently conservative. And that is sort of a surprising candidate, Rand Paul, who is the son of the former presidential candidate Ron Paul, saying that Trey Grayson is the insider. And it's right now a neck and neck race. And this reflects, Ari, across the board. I could point out states like Utah, Bob Bennett, the Senator from Utah - up against another populist Republican.

You could go to even California, Carly Fiorina is the most likely candidate for the Republicans. But in the governors' race, she's up against Chuck Devore who is saying, you know what, we need somebody who reflects populist, angry sentiments. So, the question is whether or not it's driving the party too far to the right, even at a time when President Obama is struggling and lots of anger is directed at the Democrats and Obama.

SHAPIRO: OK, so, Juan, as you describe it, in one state after another we have this divide over the future of the Republican Party. Do you think that when the 2010 election is over, the Republican Party will have a clear identity or is this debate going to continue?

WILLIAMS: There has to be a brand and right now even if you extend it into people who are likely presidential contenders, you see this fight playing out. Sarah Palin may be the personification of this fight. You know, she is a tremendously popular figure with the base, but is she someone that independents would take seriously for the presidency? But the populist anger, the energy of the moment that drives American politics, is in these Republican contests nationwide.

SHAPIRO: That's news analysis from NPR's Juan Williams. Thanks very much.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Ari.

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