TAMPA, Fla. — Every now and then, an event awakens the ever-slumbering tensions between the Republican Party’s two core wings: social conservatives and corporate interests.
A Missouri congressman’s comment about rape and pregnancy was one such moment, and it came just as Republicans were hoping for a united front at their convention to nominate Mitt Romney for president.
A full-blown rupture — such as the one at the 1992 convention, when a defeated candidate declared a national “culture war” — seems unlikely. But even a modest squabble between key party factions might raise concerns in a tight presidential race.
Romney joined other mainstream Republicans in denouncing the Aug. 19 remarks by Rep. Todd Akin, the party’s Senate nominee in Missouri. Akin said rape victims can generally avoid pregnancy because “if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”
Romney called Akin’s comments “offensive and wrong.” He unsuccessfully urged Akin to quit the Senate race.
Like many other top Republicans, Romney stopped short of criticizing Akin’s stand on abortion, as opposed to his comments about rape and conception. Akin opposes abortion in all cases, including rape.
Romney would allow abortions in instances of rape and incest. He showed no interest, however, in picking a fight with his party’s most ardent abortion opponents, a crucial source of GOP votes and volunteers. And he downplayed the fact that his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, has often joined Akin in anti-abortion measures, including some that sought to differentiate between forcible and non-forcible rapes.
It’s hardly surprising that Romney, who’s running mainly on economic issues, is trying to maintain a quiet balance between fiscal and social conservatives. The Republican Party cannot win national elections without an alliance between the two groups.
Corporate titans know they must hold hands with anti-abortion crusaders to elect politicians who will keep government regulations and taxes low. Evangelicals and other social conservatives realize they must join ranks with business executives — even if they would never mingle at a country club — to elect champions of public prayer, abortion limits and so on.
Romney, who made a fortune heading the private equity firm Bain Capital, comes from the corporate wing. He seems less convincing when talking about the social issues that animate many on the right.
As Massachusetts governor, Romney supported abortion rights, gun control and gay rights. He abandoned those positions as he prepared to run for president in 2008, but many “movement conservatives” remain wary of him.
Romney had to struggle for their support during the Republican primaries, when Newt Gingrich briefly depicted him as a “vulture capitalist.” Romney’s most persistent rival was Rick Santorum, a hero to anti-abortion activists and home-schoolers.
Now that the primaries are over, and unaffiliated voters are crucial this fall, Republican leaders would rather keep the abortion debate to a simmer, not a boil.
Last week, the party’s platform committee approved a provision that backs the “Human Life Amendment,” a proposed constitutional amendment that would ban abortion, with no exceptions for rape or incest. The Republican platforms in 2004 and 2008 did the same. That might surprise some GOP-leaning centrists, who rarely hear Republican presidents or congressional leaders make loud, full-bore pushes to outlaw abortion.
“Ronald Reagan used to talk about the party’s three-legged stool: fiscal conservatives, social conservatives and national-security conservatives,” said Dan Schnur, a former Republican adviser who now teaches political science at the University of Southern California.
“At best, it’s a three-legged stool,” Schnur said. “At worst, it’s three scorpions in a bottle.”
The party’s factions usually coexist peacefully, he said, but “the Akin matter makes it a lot harder.”
The visibility and prominence of national-security conservatives have waned in recent years, partly because of widespread disillusionment with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But business-oriented fiscal conservatives remain vitally important, as do social conservatives, who play big roles in swing states including Iowa, Florida and North Carolina.
The Akin episode ignited new tensions between the groups. Mike Huckabee, the Baptist minister and former Arkansas governor, ripped into establishment Republicans for trying to force Akin from the Senate race.
In a conference call monitored by CNN, Huckabee, who ran for president in 2008, likened the National Republican Senatorial Committee to “union goons” trying to kneecap rivals.
Romney needs as much peace between the factions as possible.
Corporate conservatives provide a disproportionate amount of funding for the GOP. Casino owner Sheldon Adelson, for instance, has pledged more than $10 million for groups opposing President Barack Obama. The wealthy industrialist brothers David and Charles Koch have donated and helped raise millions more.
Religious conservatives and anti-abortion activists, meanwhile, provide thousands of foot soldiers to knock on doors and make phone calls for candidates they support.
“The Akin case shows that the Republican establishment will pander to the social conservatives until they become a liability,” said Democratic strategist Doug Hattaway. “But the Wall Street/country club set still rely on the right-wing religious vote to prop up the party at the polls.”
Some veteran Republican operatives question why Romney maintains ties with Donald Trump, who continues to question whether Obama was born in the United States.
A hard, clean break with Trump, however, might alienate a small but fervent group of conservatives who, for now, are in Romney’s corner. In a presidential race that conceivably could turn on a few votes in one or two states, the loss of a tiny faction — led by Donald Trump, Todd Akin or someone else unloved by the Republican establishment — could prove crucial.