One of the key comments out of Sunday’s "Face the Nation" was former Sen. Jim DeMint noting a lot of conservatives, such as himself, "don’t feel like we're well-represented in Washington right now."His comment comes just as primary season is about to start with a number of prominent - and otherwise fairly safe - Republican senators under challenge from the right. (Notably, things begin in March for Texas’ John Cornyn, and go on through the spring including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in May.) None of these challenges looks poised to succeed at the moment, but they will spotlight the party’s internal debate about direction, strategy and – to some degree – what it means to be conservative today.
So do conservatives really feel underrepresented? Perhaps, but they aren’t alone – most liberals and moderates do too. That may be a broader statement on the dysfunction in Washington, which both sides decry (and which DeMint subsequently point out) than with dominance of any one ideology over another.
If we measure “representation” by perceived influence over government, then few feel adequately represented, and it doesn’t seem to matter much who’s in power. In October most conservatives (83 percent) said they had “not much” say in what government does – and so did most liberals (69 percent). That’s a difference likely due to a Democrat in the White House, but it’s a solid majority on both sides in either case. Importantly, tea party supporters also felt little influence (78 percent) but not more so than conservatives, overall.
This pattern was also true in May 2011 (73 percent of conservatives said “not much”) just shortly after the tea party and conservative candidates had helped the GOP take back the House. And if we go back to the Bush presidency during 2006, we still see these majorities: 62 percent of conservatives still said “not much” influence, as did 62 percent of liberals. So conservative frustration in this regard has indeed increased in recent years, though from already-high levels during a Republican presidency and House.
Also worth noting: Republican voters – whose party holds the House – overwhelmingly call themselves conservative; two-thirds routinely do so when asked, and half of them in turn call themselves “very” conservative. There’s little question that, by this aggregate label, anyway, today’s GOP is a conservative party, or – keeping this precisely confined to the data – is at least is composed mostly of voters who call themselves conservative. Just what “conservative” means, though, and what properly measures it, are of course points of debate.
For many conservatives, any failure to stop an increase in the debt ceiling – or cooperation with congressional Democrats, at all – is a test of conservatism, an approach to the process that defines ideology. And one that will certainly be central to those internal debates and primaries this spring.
But the widespread frustration, voiced by all sides, is important. It echoes a second theme of the upcoming primaries in that a lot of the arguments made against these Republican senators is rooted simply in the fact that they are long-term incumbents. Between now and the summer, we’ll see whether that’s enough for (the sure-to-be very conservative) Republican primary voters. The so-called “establishment” – not terribly well-defined, but which seems to mean longer-standing incumbents – hasn’t been shy since the GOP took a hit during the shutdown, pushing back against the tea party at least on legislative tactics and strategy, and that’ll likely continue through the spring.