Updated at: 02/06/2013 10:08 AM
By CHARLES BABINGTON
(AP) WASHINGTON - Republicans’ struggles to redefine their party are intensifying, as tea party insurgents and establishment Republicans vie to control congressional primaries, and GOP leaders try to expand their focus beyond the deficit.
Grassroots conservatives are condemning a new bid by wealthy donors to vet future Senate and House nominees. The donors say they want to weed out weak and gaffe-prone candidates. But tea party activists fear the real target is uncompromising conservatives.
All sides agree on one thing: their frustration and soul-searching are driven by recent losses of several Senate seats, and a presidential race that once seemed winnable.
"All events point to a fundamental clash between the old guard Republican establishment, dictating outdated ideas from the top down, versus a tech-savvy younger generation of activists driving their agenda from the bottom up," said Matt Kibbe of the tea party-affiliated group FreedomWorks.
Kibbe and others are criticizing a newly formed political action committee that plans to involve itself heavily in selected Senate and House GOP primaries. The PAC, Conservative Victory Project, is headed by Karl Rove and other strategists affiliated with mainstream Republicans, including former president George W. Bush.
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 -- 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.
Establishment Republicans 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. Democratic spending in some cases helped steer the Republican nominations to tea party activists or other conservatives who proved to be shaky candidates in November.
The GOP nominees in Missouri and Indiana particularly damaged themselves with remarks about rape and pregnancy.
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 PAC’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.
"It’s a total free-for-all," said Doug Gross, a fundraiser allied with GOP Gov. Terry Branstad.
The new Rove-affiliated PAC 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.
Establishment favorite Mike Castle, for instance, spent heavily in the 2010 Delaware Senate primary, but tea party activist Christine O’Donnell prevailed. She then lost to a Democrat who was considered a near-certain loser to Castle.
Tea party activists note that some prominent mainstream Republicans also have lost competitive Senate races, including those last fall 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. Pennsylvania Democrats nominated Sestak, who lost to Republican Pat Toomey.
In another sign of Republican soul-searching Tuesday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said 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.
In a speech in Washington, Cantor, R-Va., said federal aid should be available for students hoping to move to charter or private schools to escape poorly performing public schools. He also said the government should continue funding medical research.
Cantor said hourly workers should be allowed to "convert previous overtime into future comp-time or flex-time" to care for children or other family needs.
And in a shift in position, Cantor 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.
Associated Press writers Thomas Beaumont in Iowa, Russell Contreras in New Mexico and Bill Barrow in Georgia contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)