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The GOP’s Civil War

Everyone knows there’s a war between the parties going on right now in Congress and in Washington, a war that has shut down the national parks and large parts of the federal government.

But there’s also a war going on within the Republican Party, a war being fought on battlefields from Washington to Lansing to Canton and Grand Rapids. It’s a war for the party’s mind and soul.

Essentially, it’s a war between the Tea Party Republicans and the party’s more traditional conservatives, especially the business community. Right now, the Tea Party seems to be winning. For a while, that had the regular Republicans concerned. They know that if extremists are the face of the party, they can say goodbye to any hopes of recapturing the White House, and probably also the U.S. Senate.

But now, they have moved beyond “worried” to just plain scared. Scared about the future of the country, There was a story on the front page of the New York Times yesterday that said an increasing number of Congressional Republicans are willing to default on the nation’s debt. They think it wouldn’t be that bad.

One of those quoted was Michigan’s own Congressman Justin Amash, who said restructuring government was more important than living up to our financial obligations. Well, that might go over well in a seventh grade social studies class, but grownups know better.

Economists know that defaulting on our debt could and would do everything from wrecking the stock market to touching off inflation to endangering other nations’ faith in the American dollar.

That’s the last thing business wants. Even before this, what you might call “regular” Republicans had decided to mount serious primary challenges to two of Michigan’s most extreme Congressman. Mr. Amash, who at thirty-three is one of the youngest members of Congress, is being challenged by businessman Brian Ellis, the president of Brooktree Capital Management. Powerful names in Grand Rapids’ business community are expected to pour big money -- perhaps millions -- into Ellis’ attempt to beat Amash in next Augusts Republican primary.

Amash hasn’t been able to raise much money so far, and neither has another Tea Party favorite, Kerry Bentivolio, from the 11th district, a collection of mostly well-off Wayne and Oakland County suburbs. Like Amash, Bentivolio has been way out there on the fringes, and none is seen as especially effective.

Bentivolio, who was a controversial teacher and reindeer trainer before being elected, is being challenged by a  wealthy bankruptcy lawyer from Birmingham, David Trott, who is reportedly willing to spend at least two million dollars on the race.

Neither Ellis nor Trott are liberals or even moderates. They are deeply conservative middle-aged rich guys who, however, don’t want to see their party, the economy or the country go over a cliff.  

But despite their money, they may find it is extremely hard to beat incumbents, especially in a primary.

Extremist voters tend to be more motivated. Shadowy groups like the Club for Growth and the Koch Brothers may put up millions of their own on behalf of Amash and Bentivolio. How what’s going on now in Washington plays out will be a factor, too.

My guess is,we ain’t seen nothing, yet.   

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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