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Future of GOP is murky
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PAWLEYS ISLAND, S.C. – On one side are the pragmatists: Republicans who want to be part of the governing process and accept compromise. On the other are the purists, who prefer playing gadfly to governing and equate compromise with betrayal.
That fault line runs right through the middle of the GOP today, and it was on clear display at CPAC, the recent gathering of conservative activists. The pragmatist creed was voiced by Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey: "I'll remind you of one simple truth in this democracy: We don't get to govern if we don't win. When we don't get to govern ... what's worse is they do."
That struggle on the national level is mirrored in many states this year, including here in South Carolina, where Sen. Lindsey Graham -- a card-carrying pragmatist -- is being challenged in the Republican primary by five opponents, all competing for the perfectionist vote.
"I'm a coalition guy," boasts Graham. "I'm a conservative who gets things done." His leading challenger, state senator Lee Bright, accuses the senator of being "astonishingly out of touch with American conservatives."
Bright and his fellow purists are inspired by Jim DeMint, the former Senator from South Carolina who formed the Senate Conservatives Fund, an organization specifically designed to purge the party of heretics like Graham. DeMint then quit the Senate in 2012 to run a right-wing pressure group and shed any pretense than he was actually interested in the business of governing.
Graham and DeMint -- and the factions they symbolize -- have clashed repeatedly in recent years. DeMint and his top acolyte in the Senate, Ted Cruz of Texas, were leading architects of the strategy to shut down the government as a way of defunding Obamacare. Graham strongly opposed them, calling the shutdown "unrealistic" and "a bridge too far."
Graham has also infuriated DeMintarians by backing two of Obama's Supreme Court nominations and supporting a path to citizenship for many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants now living and working here.
To Graham, the survival of the GOP is at stake. "We're in a demographic death spiral as a party," he says. "And the only way we can get back in good graces with the Hispanic community, in my view, is pass comprehensive immigration reform. If you don't do that, it really doesn't matter who we run, in my view."
But 2014 is only a warm-up for the real battle: the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. According to purists like Cruz and DeMint, the Republicans have failed to win the White House when their nominees -- like Bob Dole, John McCain and Mitt Romney -- are not conservative enough.
Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. Their chance of reversing that trend depends heavily on the answer to this question: Which South Carolinian, Lindsey Graham or Jim DeMint, represents the future direction of the party?
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at