CLEVELAND, Ohio — A year from now, Republicans will have nominated their candidate at the 2016 Republican National Committee (RNC) convention here. But tonight, the opening salvo of what’s likely to be a bruising and brutal presidential primary process for all involved begins, and the wounds afflicting the party—a Civil War between moderates and conservatives—will be on display for the world to see in the first of many coming 2016 GOP presidential primary debates.
Center stage at 9 p.m. Eastern time will be GOP frontrunner billionaire businessman Donald Trump, flanked on either side by the rest of the top 10 of the GOP field: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY), Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Marco Rubio (R-FL), and world-renowned neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson.
Nobody in politics thought Trump would be polling as well as he is—he’s the runaway frontrunner in every poll that’s come out over the last six weeks—at this stage in the game. Long knives from his various opponents—especially Bush and Rubio—will be out to get him. Bush, reportedly, thinks Trump is an “a**hole” and a “clown.”
But Trump’s persona aside, his rise highlights the deeper divide that’s been brewing inside the GOP for the last several election cycles. Conservatives are furious with the more moderate wing of the party—the Establishment—for having nominated weak candidates who couldn’t win against Barack Obama, the Democratic president, in the last two cycles. Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, lost the 2012 election after Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) lost the 2008 election. Conservatives feel like both were winnable, especially the 2012 one.
Interestingly, McCain and Romney still loom large over the GOP process. Romney has held personal meetings with several of the more establishment-minded candidates like Rubio, Christie, and Bush. McCain is still a tour-de-force in the U.S. Senate, pushing Republicans away from fighting Democrats as much as possible, and remains a centerpiece in the presidential political discussion, especially after a dustup with Trump a few weeks ago over McCain’s military record.
Conservatives like Paul, Cruz, Carson, and Huckabee—along with Trump—argue that the party needs a bolder and fresher face than the weaker establishment-minded candidates in order to attract more voters. Moderates like Rubio, Bush, Christie and Kasich believe the party needs to soften its conservatism to appeal to more voters. Walker falls somewhere in the middle, perhaps the only GOP candidate in the top 10 who can walk in both the establishment and conservative worlds inside this civil war—at least for now, due to having battled the left to win three elections in four years after Democrats unsuccessfully tried to recall him.
RNC chairman Reince Priebus, in an interview here with SiriusXM Patriot Channel’s David Webb as part of Webb’s presidential forum at the RNC summer meetings, walked through how the party needs to unite to defeat former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—the presumed Democratic nominee, as she’s the current far and away frontrunner in that party’s primary—after this coming brutal primary. The RNC just wrapped summer meetings here, in which they set various procedural processes into place and prepared the party for the next year, plus through the primaries and into the general election.
Priebus told Webb:
Our job at the national party is not to pick candidates in primaries. That’s the job of the voters. Nothing I think is more humorous than when I go to Iowa or New Hampshire and someone says ‘you got to quit giving us these candidates.’ Wait a second. You’re in Iowa or New Hampshire. You have a bigger say over who the nominee is than I do. Our job is a pretty boring job. We have to make sure that the mechanics, the data, the ground game, the operation and how those communicators turn out are better than we could have ever imagined. That’s our job at the RNC. Whether you’re for Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, Marco [Rubio] or Lindsey Graham, you better hope that the Republican National Committee has its act together. Because if we don’t have our act together, we will lose—absolutely for sure. We have become in some cases a candidate crazy party to the detriment of all the mechanics. We can’t win a national election without being about perfect at the national level as a party.
Despite the constant reassurances from GOP leaders like Priebus that they’re not pushing one or more of the establishment candidates like Rubio, Kasich, or Bush on the voters, the electorate clearly can’t help but feel trapped by the establishment. That’s perhaps why Trump is surging in the polls and has been given in many cases a free pass on several things—like the McCain squabble—that would have tanked anyone else in conventional political times: The base is rebelling against the party elders.
The issues that will highlight the GOP divide most, too, are trade and immigration–something Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), the intellectual leader of the conservative movement and future of the Republican Party, told Breitbart News in an interview on Wednesday he hopes remain central parts of the discussion.
The anti-establishment environment is pouring through the veins of the party as more and more outsiders, so to speak, descend on Cleveland to get involved in the process and aim to shape it to force it away from the Bushes and the Rubios and toward the Trumps and the Cruzes and the Pauls. It remains to be seen what will happen in this donnybrook of a GOP primary in 2016, but the opening salvo of the civil war begins tonight at 9 p.m.—and earlier at 5 p.m. on the undercard debate stage, where conservatives like former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal are likely to rebel against the establishment as well.