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Juan Williams: A GOP identity crisis

Anne Wernikoff

Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) recent outburst against far-right conservative groups kicks off a political identity crisis for the GOP that will define the 2014 campaign.

Putting aside Boehner’s rare show of anger, he is accusing Heritage Action and other conservative fundraisers of caring more about money than sending more Republicans to Congress.

Thanks to the Speaker the two sides are now clearly defined.

Will GOP voters side with Republicans such as Boehner, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), New York’s Rep. Peter King and Tennessee’s Sen. Bob Corker alongside groups such as the Chamber of Commerce?

This is the conservative political establishment, willing to make deals with Democrats on the budget, tax reform and even immigration reform. They want more voters, especially independent voters, to be comfortable with a reasonable, pragmatic conservative party in the midterms and the presidential race of 2016.

On the other side of this divided GOP is an alternative establishment of right-wing talk show hosts and ideologically extreme groups such as Heritage Action and FreedomWorks.

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Those groups continue to stir Tea Party passions and donations by insisting on shutting down government, opposing budget deals and arguing that Republicans in Congress have the power to end ObamaCare.

This is the same GOP civil war that led to the October government shutdown – which was a fiasco for the party’s poll numbers but a winner for far-right fundraisers. The big money in donations is why Heritage and the others have condemned the new budget deal.

That persistent opposition led to Boehner’s explosion. He recalled opposition to the October deal and how later “one of the people, one of these groups stood up and said, ‘Well, we never really thought it would work.’” Boehner paused then shrieked: “Are you kidding me?”

In his rant against the extreme right, Boehner accused them of opposing the budget deal before they read it while “misleading their followers” and “pushing our members into a place where they don’t want to be.” He said these groups “had lost all credibility.”

Boehner’s comments led Corker to say flatly “there are some outside groups who do what they do solely to raise money.”

Despite Boehner’s barbed comments, extreme candidates are popping up all over the country. Just as in 2012, the Tea Party challengers are being driven and funded by conservative groups like FreedomWorks, Heritage Action, Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund.

After Boehner’s attack on the far right, Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, shot back: “Frankly, Mr. Speaker… Not upholding conservative principles is how you lose credibility with the voters who will find someone else if you are not willing to do your job.”

Recent polls show low support for the Tea Party – 23 percent in a CBS poll. Even so, the highest-ranking Republicans in the Senate will face Tea Party challengers in 2014 primaries.

McConnell is facing a well-financed Tea Party candidate, a former Army Captain named Matt Bevin, in Kentucky. In Texas, Senate Minority Whip Jon Cornyn drew a primary challenge from Tea Party Republican Congressman Steve Stockman earlier this month.

Even incumbent Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran, who was first elected to the Senate in 1978 and enjoys an 80 percent lifetime conservative rating from the American Conservative Union, is facing a primary challenge from his right. Cochran is being challenged by a state senator who once addressed a conference of “neo-confederates” in Laurel, Miss.

Due to the Tea Party threat in the primaries, McConnell and Cornyn felt they had to come out against the budget compromise. Both politicians are being pressured by their state’s Tea Party-backed junior senators — Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas.

So even though the deal does not raise income taxes and contains significant cuts to federal workers’ pensions, they joined with critics who said it is insufficiently conservative.

Boehner is a leading voice asking Republican voters to turn away from the ideologues and focus on the political power that comes from expanding the base and winning more elections.

In 2014 Senate races, the party has a deep bench of popular, attractive, first-tier conservative candidates in red states. They will be difficult for Democrats to marginalize as extremists.

In West Virginia, long-time Republican Congresswoman Shelley Moore-Capito could easily win the open seat. The same is true in South Dakota where the GOP has popular former Gov. Mike Rounds as a candidate. In Louisiana, conservative Congressman Bill Cassidy could mount a strong challenge to vulnerable incumbent Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu.

Democrats currently have a 55-45 Senate majority; they have to defend 21 of their seats while the GOP had to defend only 14.

Republicans only need to move six of those seats into their column to retake the majority.

Many of those states are deep red bastions that voted for Mitt Romney over President Obama in 2012. The six most likely GOP pickups are states that went for Romney by double digits in 2012: Arkansas, Alaska, Louisiana, Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia.

Though Romney won North Carolina by just 2.2 percentage points, its sitting Democratic senator, Kay Hagan, is also vulnerable.

But the biggest prize for the Republicans in 2014 will be control of the party’s identity. Is it a minority party of ideologues or a party expanding its base?

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.