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After spending last weekend with a couple of thousand Michigan Republicans and some presidential candidates courting their support, it’s clear the GOP is fractured along two planes.

The first break, apparent in the polls since mid-summer, is between so-called establishment Republicans — those who back candidates who hold or have held elected office — and anti-establishment Republicans — those who want nothing to do with anyone who’s ever been elected to anything.

The second fault line is among establishment Republicans themselves. Call it a fight between practical conservatives and principled conservatives.

The splits were seething on Mackinac Island during the two-day Michigan Republican Leadership Conference. If they can’t be mended, the Republicans will go into the critical 2016 election divided, angry at each other and unprepared to accept the gift of the White House Democrats seem determined to give them.

Blame the establishment for the anti-establishment sentiment that has elevated Donald Trump to the top of the polls, followed by fellow outsiders Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina. Since 2010, Republicans have been winning congressional elections by promising their voters they would undo everything President Barack Obama has done and restore conservative values to Washington.

When voters gave them majorities of both the House and Senate, they expected them to deliver. They can’t, of course, as long as the White House is still firmly in Democratic hands.

Obama pressed on with his agenda, using executive orders and regulatory agencies to get much of what he wanted, and rendering Congress powerless to stop him.

GOP voters felt shafted. So now they’re looking outside of Washington, and beyond state houses where successful Republican governors are delivering on their promises, for their presidential nominee.

The last outsider to win the presidency was Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, who, as commander of allied forces in World War II, was only sort of on the outside.

Donald Trump will not be the next one. Nor will Ben Carson. Carly Fiorina could be, I guess, but only if she can spin a controversial resume into a credible case for leading the Free World.

Among Republican office holders, the fracture is between the windmill tilters — represented on the island by Rand Paul and Ted Cruz — and the patient and practical, whose Mackinac envoys were Jeb Bush and John Kasich. The Bush/Kasich wing urges the party to focus on winning the White House, and then get to work on changing Washington.

The Cruz/Paul contingent urges Republicans to die for a noble cause. Use their congressional majorities to force Obama to shut down the government over funding of Planned Parenthood. Hold up the budget to stop the president’s regulatory overreaches.

In other words, pick a whole lot of fights Republicans can’t win in the name of ideological purity. The hard-right GOP base would love it, of course, even as the media painted party members as obstructionists willing to sacrifice the well-being of the country to prove a point. And in the end, Obama wins anyway, because without the White House, Republicans can annoy but they can’t prevail.

nfinley@detroitnews.com

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