Grassroots Republicans still intent on shaking up the GOP

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, stands with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol June 10, 2014 in Washington, D.C. Mark Wilson, Getty Images

Tensions between so-called establishment Republicans and the party's grassroots conservatives have been simmering since the 2012 election, when Republicans lost some key Senate races as well as the presidency. Last week, however, Republican primary voters in Virginia's 7th district ousted House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, signaling that the grassroots are still intent on shaking up the GOP in this midterm election year.

"You're going to have both an infusion of new blood and some old war horses who are going to figure this thing out and win," Ralph Reed, founder and chairman of the Faith & Freedom Coalition (FFC), said to CBS News ahead of his organization's "Road to Majority" conference this week.

As part of the conference, FFC supporters on Thursday will lobby members of Congress on certain issues, including support for "traditional" marriage. Even though the Republican National Committee has urged Republicans to show more sensitivity for gay rights issues as the tide of public opinion turns, Reed said the conservative base is ready to stand firm on the issue of marriage. On the same day, several conservative groups are hosting a "March for Marriage" issue in Washington, featuring speakers like former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Sen. Rick Santorum.

"We want our allies on the Hill to know we're not going to take this lying down," Reed said.

In the days to come, the GOP establishment will have to confront its base at the "Road to Majority" conference, the March for Marriage, at Thursday's House Republican leadership vote, and in yet another primary fight in Mississippi. There's some indication that the GOP isn't ready to cede more ground to the right wing -- 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney won accolades last weekend at his "ideas summit" in Utah, while establishment Republicans have regained control of the party in the key state of Iowa.

Conservative activists insist that they -- and voters at large -- are primarily interested in finding leaders they can trust.

Establishment Republicans can win, Reed said, "if you are fully transparent and show respect for the voters by being honest with them and acknowledging where you have an occasional disagreement." That, he said, explains why Cantor lost even though Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. -- who is arguably to Cantor's left on the key issue of immigration reform -- breezed through his primary challenge.

Similarly, the fiscally conservative group FreedomWorks says it is backing conservative Rep. Raul Labrador's bid to replace Cantor as House Majority Leader because of the trust he's earned. Labrador is running against Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, currently the minority whip.

"Here's a guy who's actually in touch with his constituents, with the grassroots," Adam Brandon, FreedomWorks' executive vice president, said of Labrador. "There will be a lot more trust with Republicans if you've got someone like this in leadership."

That stands in contrast, he said, to House leaders who ran on fiscally conservative values but then forced the GOP caucus to vote on raising the debt ceiling this year.

FreedomWorks is also supporting Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel in his primary challenge against incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran. The two will go head to head in a runoff election on June 24.

Brandon argued that Cochran's supporters are "all about the pork." If pushing back against special interests temporarily divides the GOP, so be it, he said.

"If there's a split in the GOP between those who want to use government for cronyism or to keep K Street alive and flush, versus a Republican Party that stands on fiscal principle, that's a fight we've got to have," he said.

While it may at times splinter the party, Brandon argued that the ongoing tussle between the GOP and its grassroots also reinvigorates the party. Younger Republican leaders like Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, have brought new attention to issues like civil liberties, he said, while grassroots-backed politicians like Labrador and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., have given the Republican Party a much-needed dose of diversity.

"If everything stayed the same, every party would die out, but there's an evolution going on," Brandon said.

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