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GOP Jumps in a Lake
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GOP Jumps in a Lake

Why is Sen. John Barrasso endorsing a kooky radical?

Kari Lake speaks during a rally at the Hilton Palm Beach Airport on June 12, 2023, in West Palm Beach, Florida. (Photo by Octavio Jones/Getty Images)

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper is neither foolish nor radical. He is a Democrat in a state that has voted Republican in 13 of the past 14 presidential elections, so Cooper knows he owes his two victories more to the kookiness and incoherence of the Tar Heel GOP than any emerging progressive majority.

In an evenly divided state—it has seven Republicans and seven Democrats in its House delegation and went for Donald Trump over Joe Biden 50-49 three years ago—being inoffensive and competent goes a long way if the other side is … troubled.  

But Cooper is ambitious, which is why, term-limited after his 2020 re-election, he positioned himself to become chairman of the Democratic Governors Association last year. Once atop it, however, he was faced with some unhappy work in a midterm year when the prevailing winds were—at least initially—blowing hard against his party. 

That meant supporting a variety of candidates ranging from party-switching moderates to far-out progressive activists depending on the state and the race. It also meant endorsing and working with people who are his opposites: fools and radicals.

In Georgia, Democrats had found both in Stacey Abrams, whose narrow gubernatorial loss in the good Democratic year of 2018—by only 54,723 votes out of nearly 4 million ballots cast—set her up as the frontrunner for the tough Democratic year of 2022. 

But by 2022, Abrams had become a parody of herself, particularly in her refusal to accept the results of the election she had clearly lost four years earlier, a low tactic that foreshadowed the nightmares of 2020 and January 6. Having become a political celebrity on the left and a sinkhole for out-of-state contributions for her illusory promise of red-state victories without compromise, she proved herself out of touch and got duly thumped in her rematch with Gov. Brian Kemp—losing by 297,899 votes out of nearly 4 million ballots cast.

When Cooper had praised her “people-powered movement” that “should leave Republicans shaking in their boots” after Abrams won her primary last year, he was probably just doing his job as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association. Those are silly things for an adult to say outside of the kind of campaign blabber that we all mostly ignore—a kind of box-checking rhetorical enterprise. She was his party’s nominee, so she got the perfumed word cloud puffed in her direction.

What, then, are we to make of the statement from Sen. John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming, himself known to be neither foolish nor radical, endorsing the Senate candidacy of Arizonan Kari Lake, who is enthusiastically both? 

She is not the Republican nominee in the race. The primary is 10 months away. There are still six months for new candidates to file. 

And yet … 

“Kari Lake will shine brightly for Arizona,” Barrasso said in a press release. “She is a generational communicator who is giving voice to Arizona citizens.”

Woof.

Where Abrams won fame for nearly winning the governorship of a red state in a good year for Democrats, Lake is famous for losing the governorship of a red state in a good year for Republicans. 

For context, Lake got 60,000 fewer votes in her candidacy last year than the previous governor, Republican Doug Ducey, had gotten in 2018 when Republicans coast-to-coast were getting swamped. The Democratic nominee Lake faced, Katie Hobbs, was a terrible candidate running against the tide, and Lake still managed to lose by more than 17,000 votes.

She lost in 2022 for the same reasons Abrams did in 2018: kookiness, radicalism, and arrogance. But where Abrams had been comparatively subtle in her efforts to undermine confidence in elections, Lake was—and is—a wild-eyed enthusiast. Her election conspiracies, her devotion to Trump, and her support for the January 6 attackers made her a very bad candidate in a state that now looks a lot more like North Carolina politically than the bright-red hue it held for most of the past 100 years. 

So why would Barrasso, a three-term incumbent well regarded for his expertise on foreign policy and who is chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, come out with an endorsement of a woman who seems perfectly suited to cost Republicans an easy Senate seat pickup in Arizona?

Is it because, after many warnings from Senate Republicans that she would have to clean up her act to expect support, Lake is trying to act normally and adopt a moderate posture? Maybe after 14 years of mixed success in keeping weak candidates from winning Senate nominations, Senate Republicans have decided to try to seek influence with the kooky rather than to defeat them.

Is it because Barrasso and the other members of the Senate Republican leadership team are looking to gain support in the looming battle to replace Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and an early endorsement of Lake could pay off if she manages to win next year?

Is it because Barrasso is running for reelection in a state where the primary electorate has no tolerance for anti-MAGA tendencies? Lake could be a powerful ally in the event that Barrasso found himself with a Trump-aligned challenger. 

Whatever the reasons, it is not obligation, as it would be with falling in behind a nominee, but rather some manner of calculation. And just as certainly, the Lake endorsement is another signpost on the road to minority capture for the GOP. 

As we watch mainstream Republicans agonize over whether it is better to be disloyal to their party and refuse to elect Jim Jordan speaker of the House or to have a House speaker who will surely lead the party to misery in next year’s elections, think about how Lake went from wing nut to establishment favorite.

Think also about how much longer Republicans will be willing to keep alive the idea of even a notional effort to fight Trump for a third presidential nomination. 

We saw the predictable failures of bad candidates like Abrams and Lake in 2022, but Republicans look like they’re increasingly unwilling to fight for something better.

Correction October 17, 2023: This article originally misstated the results of the 2020 presidential election in North Carolina.

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics.