WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans' struggles to redefine their party are intensifying, as conservative tea party insurgents and establishment Republicans vie for control and Republican Party leaders try to expand their focus beyond the deficit.
The struggle follows the party's big losses in November's elections and is centered around an effort to create a political action committee led by Karl Rove and other strategists affiliated with mainstream Republicans, including former president George W. Bush, to vet future Senate and House of Representatives nominees.
Republican hopes for taking control of the Senate were undermined by two conservative candidates who made explosive comments about rape and pregnancy. The party also saw its chances of taking the Senate in 2010 dashed by candidates who were popular among the grassroots voters who choose the nominees in primaries but proved weak in the general elections.
The new group says it wants to weed out weak and gaffe-prone candidates. But activists with the anti-tax, pro-small government tea party fear the real target are uncompromising conservatives.
"All events point to a fundamental clash between the old guard Republican establishment, dictating outdated ideas from the top down, versus a tech-savvy younger generation of activists driving their agenda from the bottom up," said Matt Kibbe of the conservative tea party-affiliated group FreedomWorks.
Republican leaders feel they could have won Senate races in Delaware, Nevada and Colorado in 2010 — and races in Missouri and Indiana last year — if they had nominated more orthodox and disciplined candidates.
The party's conservative stances on immigration and many social issues also lost it the votes of minorities, women and youths.
Rove and his allies oversee other groups that spent heavily in the 2012 general elections. But they rarely got involved in Republican congressional primaries. The new group — named Conservative Victory Project and likely to be funded by the same wealthy supporters — plans to change that.
Republicans lost several recent Senate races that they might have won "with more careful candidate vetting and more careful recruiting," said Steven Law, who will head the new PAC.
The goal, Law said, is to nominate "the most conservative candidate who can win." The new effort, he said, "has been mischaracterized as an establishment move against the tea party, and it isn't."
Amy Kremer of the Tea Party Express, however, said the new group "wants to push the Tea Party out and replace them with the failed strategies of 2008 and 2012."
Another group, Tea Party Patriots, told supporters: "In a misguided attempt to 'appeal to moderates', Rove and his ilk have alienated conservatives within the Republican Party."
Chris Chocola of the conservative Club for Growth also questioned the new group's intentions. "Electability matters," he said, "but it has to be coupled with something else, like principle."
An early target of the new Rove group might be Rep. Steve King of Iowa, a tea party favorite. He's eyeing the Senate seat being vacated next year by Democrat Tom Harkin.
King has won five re-elections handily, despite a knack for incendiary remarks. He said, for instance, that Barack Obama's election in 2008 would have al-Qaida "dancing in the streets."
Some Republican leaders have gently urged King not to run for Senate. But they concede there's little they can do, given King's tea party support and an Iowa Republican Party organization that's largely run by allies of libertarian hero Ron Paul.
The new Rove-affiliated group may be able to pour millions of dollars into selected primaries. That could buy a lot of TV ads, mailings and ground troops. But history shows it's often hard for party leaders to control primaries, which tend to be dominated by ideological voters.
Tea party activists note that some prominent mainstream Republicans also have lost competitive Senate races, including those last November in North Dakota and Montana.
Democrats struggle with primaries as well. Obama and other top Democrats tried to clear the Pennsylvania Senate nomination for Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter in 2010, warning congressman Joe Sestak he'd be crushed if he challenged Specter. But Pennsylvania Democrats nominated Sestak, who lost to Republican Pat Toomey.
In another sign of Republican soul-searching Tuesday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said in a speech in Washington that the party must show voters that it cares about education, health care and immigration changes in addition to the deficits and spending cuts it dwells on so often.
Among other things, Cantor shifted his position and said illegal immigrants who came to the country as children should be given a pathway to citizenship.
Meanwhile, the nation's only two Hispanic governors signaled they will lead an expanded Republican effort to recruit Latino and female candidates for state offices across the country. The Republican State Leadership Committee planned a conference call Wednesday with New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval to announce the formation of the Future Majority Caucus.