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Republicans in Minnesota and elsewhere worry about rift in party

The GOP base will likely turn out in the fall, but attracting independent voters may be a major challenge.

The trope this primary election cycle is that Minnesota Republicans, like their counterparts nationwide, are so fractured that Republicans themselves will present the biggest challenge to the GOP presidential nominee. Mitt Romney’s relatively narrow wins Tuesday support the contention that before the nominee can defeat President Obama this fall, he must cement together enough of these factions to bring together the base, and that may not be possible.

Carleton College political science professor and pundit Steve Schier rejects that notion with a sweeping dismissal. “There are no Obama Republicans,” he says.

With polls showing Republican approval of Obama at 10 percent, even Rick Santorum will get the GOP base, he said.

That is not to say that Minnesota Republicans, like DFLers, don’t have specific agendas. In the Republican Party, the factions resemble a grown-up version of high school cliques. There are the social conservatives, the pro-business Republicans, the country club Republicans, the disenchanted Republicans. This last group has morphed into the libertarians and the Tea Party Republicans.

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Even the splinter groups have splintered. There are Tea Party supporters who don’t like Romney because of health care, don’t like Santorum because of earmarks, and don’t like Newt Gingrich because of his stand on cap and trade and his association with Nancy Pelosi.

Then there are the Ron Paul supporters. Republicans who will work hard in November for unified voter turnout say the biggest division stems from the Ron Paul people.  Activists note that the Paul supporters show up at caucuses, never to be seen again. They have no second choice candidate. 

“The Ron Paul supporter will never be an activist,” Schier said. “It’s not the man. It’s the libertarian cause. They buy a libertarian ideology and mission.”  

The mission to dramatically shrink the size and scope of government has given extra weight to the one issue that cleaves Republican ranks in Minnesota: Gay rights has replaced abortion as the bright line that can’t be crossed. On one side are the social conservatives. On the other are libertarians, moderates and groups who see anti-gay positions as an impediment to business growth.  

The divide has widened with the proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot that defines marriage as the union between a man and a woman. It’s also strengthened the voice of the Log Cabin Republicans of Minnesota. Although in number the coalition is miniscule, Log Cabin Republicans created some ripples in their caucuses as they moved to remove anti-language from the party platform.

Republican activists are sensitive about the depiction of their party divided and point to divisions among Democrats, namely the battle over jobs versus the environment.

Schier concurs — up to a point. “The rift is there but it’s been submerged in this election,” he says. “There’s no evidence of this at the state level. At the national level, if there were serious rifts, Obama would have a primary opponent.” He sees no evidence of an anti-Obama Democrat when it comes to the president’s reelection.

As for the Republican primary opponents, there seems to be the belief that what doesn’t kill the party will make it stronger. There are three candidates that fit the bill for most of the Republican Party. They are competing with each other, and that’s healthy. The party won’t be fractionalized once the nominee emerges.

Given the rank-and-file Republican’s determination to deny Obama a second term, turnout of the base will not be a problem. But given the positions that candidates have been forced to stake out, the question is whether the eventual Republican nominee will attract the critical percentage of independents needed to win the national election. Divisions in the party could linger until November and turnout alone will not be enough for a Republican to win.