GOP infighting over ObamaCare could spill over into 2014 elections

Republican infighting over the defunding of ObamaCare is growing increasingly nasty and could spill over into the 2014 elections.

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Hardline conservatives are pushing for the GOP to shut down the government if Democrats refuse to defund ObamaCare, and are threatening reprisals in primaries if they don’t get their way. Establishment Republicans are just as furious, and aren’t backing down.

The GOP conflict is the most public — and heated — of any since Republicans lost the 2012 elections, and exposes a rift in the party that will likely grow deeper. The civil war could hurt the party’s chances to retake the Senate and hold on to its majority in the House.

Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) are leading the defunding push in the upper chamber and 80 House Republicans have signed on, as have the conservative groups Club For Growth, Senate Conservatives Fund and Heritage Action. But many other Republicans have voiced opposition, including Speaker John Boehner (Ohio), who has indicated he’s against the plan.

Conservative groups are framing the debate in near-apocalyptic terms, and ramping up the pressure on lawmakers to back the effort — or else.

“This is about stopping the worst law that has ever been passed, something we believe will destroy the country, and not all Republicans are willing to stop it. We need to draw a line in the sand,” Senate Conservatives Fund Executive Director Matt Hoskins told The Hill. “Anyone who votes to fund ObamaCare should have a primary challenge — they’re part of the problem and they should be replaced.”

Hoskins’s group is running ads criticizing a half-dozen Senate Republicans, including two they could target in primaries this year: Sens. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Lamar Alexander (Tenn.). His group plans to go after two more Republican senators starting next week.

Heritage Action, another powerful group strongly in favor of the defund movement, is spending more than half a million dollars on ads targeting the 100 House Republicans who haven’t yet signed on to the defunding effort.

“Pretty much since 2011 and the debt-ceiling fight there’s been an unwillingness to be aggressive and push good conservative policy,” said Heritage Action Communications Director Dan Holler. “On ObamaCare, arguably the biggest issue facing our country and why they’re in office in the first place, they’re not willing to take the same principled stance.”

That strategy has some Republicans seething.

“Why is @Heritage_Action spending $550K to attack conservatives but not @KayHagan who was a deciding vote on #Obamacare?” Rep. Renee Ellmers (N.C.), one of the Republicans the group is targeting, tweeted on Friday.

“Obamacare must be stopped, but we cannot stop it with political games. And, frankly, any threat to shut down the federal government over funding Obamacare in the Continuing Resolution is a political game and a distraction,” she wrote on her campaign website on Thursday.

“When you’re a so-called conservative organization that’s spending more money attacking Republicans than the [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee] has, it’s time to look in the mirror, and hopefully their donors will look at their priorities as well,” says Brian Walsh, a former communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “You’re falsely raising expectations over conservative grassroots types over a battle with a predetermined outcome and that’s not helpful. ... That’s not a constructive strategy, that’s a strategy of fratricide.”

For now, it appears that establishment Republicans might win the argument in D.C. Boehner indicated in a Thursday evening conference call with GOP lawmakers that he wants to move a continuing resolution to keep the government funded. Boehner added that Republicans should trumpet their success in forcing the cuts caused by sequestration. That is unlikely to mollify Tea Party lawmakers.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been notably noncommittal on the defunding effort, but reportedly has worked behind the scenes to keep other Republicans from signing on to the Rubio and Cruz initiative.

Conservatives admit they might not get their way in Washington on this battle. But they believe that will give them ammunition in primaries.

That’s already begun: McConnell’s primary opponent has attacked him for refusing to take a stand on the issue, as has the Club For Growth-backed primary opponent of Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), a close Boehner ally.

How problematic this issue will be in 2014 for the GOP remains to be seen. Recent numbers from The Winston Group, Boehner’s pollster, show that more than half of Republicans oppose shutting down the government in order to defund ObamaCare. But conservatives say that’s a false choice — that they don’t want to shut down the government, just the healthcare law — and question the poll’s methodology.

Heritage Action has released its own polling, and says it shows that voters support a temporary shutdown in order to delay or defund ObamaCare. The methodology of the poll, however, has also come under attack.

“This is a major, major element of the conservative movement, it’s a major priority for them, and if conservatives feel the leadership in Washington isn’t listening to them, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that will play out in the ballot box,” says Holler.