Not Your Parents' GOP

The Republican revolution of 1994 led onetime Democratic Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama to switch parties and become a proud member of the GOP. Next week's election in Alabama may define the beginning of the end of the senior senator's party as he's known it.

On one side are the firebrands, the ones who tacitly (or not so tacitly) affirm the views of white supremacists and neo-Nazis who have held rallies around the nation. They are the ones who have defended Alabama GOP Senate nominee Roy Moore, saying the accused child molester is the more moral contender in the race because he opposes abortion and same-sex marriage.

On the other side is the so-called "establishment," the ones who wish Moore would just go away and who are aching to pass tax cuts and other conservative agenda items that were stymied for the eight years of Barack Obama's presidency.

But instead of being an embarrassing subject of the party, the fringe elements are capturing control of the GOP's image, if not its entire agenda. The distinguished Shelby says he wrote in another Republican for the open Senate seat but acknowledges there's nothing he can do to keep his home state from sending Moore to Washington.

"I think they're driving the dialogue," Republican strategist Ford O'Connell says of the far-right wing of the party – and it's because establishment Republicans need them, or think they need them, to govern. "One of the reasons you're seeing these folks drive the agenda, and other people are passively on board, is that there's a unique sense among Republican voters that like it or not, this is their best chance to get something done.

"They may not agree. They may not be happy with the president. I think what they're hoping is that winning is going to cure all, because losing hasn't cured anything for the Republican Party," adds O'Connell, who worked on the John McCain-Sarah Palin campaign in 2008.

Read more from Susan Milligan at U.S. News & World Report

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Analysis & Political Strategy