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A Moderate's Take on the GOP Civil War and How the Party Will Win Back Its People and Its Brand

11/20/2013 04:10 pm ET | Updated Jan 25, 2014

It's been six weeks since the government shutdown when tensions reached fever pitch in the Republican Party, and two weeks since moderate New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie waltzed to a landslide victory while Virginia's gubernatorial Tea Party candidate Ken Cuccinelli delivered a historic loss for the GOP.

The lines of the Republican Party civil war have been drawn. Much ink has already been spilled about what's been called this "battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party," and what it means for the future of the GOP.

Now I'm here to argue that as a moderate Republican who's watched what has happened to the party over the last four years, this war is the best thing that could have happened to the party.

Come to think of it, it's like the relief of waking up from one long nightmare -- the kind when you're alone on a playground, backed into a corner by two gangs of bullies.

On the left -- the Democrats, whose big government programs and spending schemes are deeply out of keeping with conservative instincts for limited government and personal empowerment. Sure, they've always been a menace, but the threat has been more acute after they gave control to an arrogant ring leader who makes his own rules, defines his own truth, and seeks to destroy anyone who disagrees with him.

Then again, while a ruthless foe is always unsettling, insincere friends are far more dangerous. In this case, that's the gang staring at you from the right: The Tea Party.

This rag-tag team of misfits united and advanced with a shrill and sudden dominance that shocked and even silenced mainstream Republicans. Worse yet, like stealing the shirt off your back and flying it as their flag, this disparate band of brothers walked away with the GOP brand.

What happened next is a well-known story. Tea Party-supported candidates won 5 of the 10 Senate races they contested in the 2010 elections, and 40 of 130 House races they contested. More than 30 Tea Party candidates went on to victory that November. Every single one of them rode into Washington on the Republican ticket to advance their right-wing social agendas.

The GOP establishment, meanwhile, perhaps stunned into submission, sat idly by as its credibility with mainstream America dwindled and long-time supporters and sympathetic allies were left in the cold.

But the Tea Party's decision to single-handedly trigger a government shutdown over what it knew was a futile strategy to defund Obamacare was nothing short of a gift to the GOP.

You see, by bringing the government to its knees, and putting markets on notice to prepare for the first U.S. default in history, the Tea Party finally made enough noise to wake the sleeping elephant, so to speak.

And while public opinion polls tell us that the entire Republican Party paid the price for holding the country hostage to party politics, the truth is that the shutdown gave the establishment the motivation it needed to fight back and the opportunity to get its supporters fired up too.

Within weeks of the shutdown, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which had urged House members to vote for the temporary government funding bill and avoid the shutdown, announced it was researching GOP challengers who would be viable to stand against Tea Party candidates in next year's primaries. It also said it would be pouring money into campaigns for pro-business (read: moderate) Republicans, which it successfully test-piloted in a special Alabama congressional primary run-off this month, sinking the Tea Party favorite.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee has also come forward to say it too would be supporting moderate candidates against conservatives in the next election cycle.

And there's reason to be optimistic that big money could come to the rescue as well. Karl Rove's Conservative Victory Project and its Super PAC, American Crossroads, has already started some of the work, so it's reasonable to think that other Super PACs may spring up to support establishment candidates too.

These are all encouraging signs that the GOP is turning the tables, and the latest polls give a similar picture. Support for the Tea Party has tumbled by around 20 points since its 2010 heyday, and roughly half the country now has an unfavorable view of the Tea Party, including a growing number of conservative Republicans.

But this is only the beginning. The key thing to remember is that this fight will be won at the grassroots level where this conflict began.

And this is where the Tea Party still claims an advantage, because the one thing that unifies these otherwise very different groups under one movement is the same thing that makes its members different from moderates and mainstream Republicans: Their dogmatic political positions are their passion, so they make it a priority to vote in primaries.

And so, success for the establishment will come down to whether it can effectively tap into the growing anti-Tea Party sentiment and find ways to motivate its supporters -- who don't tend to come out in primary elections -- to change their behavior and vote.

That's a tall order for campaign strategists, and goes against the traditional wisdom of focusing resources solely on those who have voted in past primaries. But in the age of sophisticated micro-targeting, it's certainly possible. And in doing so, the party should aim to pick up new supporters as well.

If establishment Republicans can show tangible successes in the 2014 primaries, they'll have proven they are capable of winning the confidence of the great silent majority again. By the time the 2016 presidential election rolls around, a decontaminated GOP brand may just have enough power to attract those crucial swing voters who, time and again, have proven their influence in the outcome of national elections.

And that's why I would say this isn't just a battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party. It's a battle for the heart and soul of the country. And it may just be the GOP's one chance to prove that it's capable of governing America again.

So as the next stage of this fight rolls forward into the 2014 election season, there's one thing the Tea Party needs to know for sure: You were spoiling for a fight? Well you got it. But you don't have Republicans to kick around anymore.

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