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Kooks, Real and Imagined
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Kooks, Real and Imagined

What happened when the GOP fell in love with the idea of a permanent revolution.

Former President Donald Trump embraces Arizona Republican gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake at a campaign rally at Legacy Sports USA on October 9, 2022 in Mesa, Arizona. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Writing about the coming Senate elections in the fall of 2014, the New York Times editorial page offered solace to Democrats facing a thrashing for their party in the upper chamber. 

Because Democrats had “become more aggressive in challenging Republicans about their beliefs” on social and cultural issues, particularly abortion, “radical” Republican Senate candidates would lose, and the center line of such debates would move left.

“The shift in public opinion might not be enough for Democrats to keep the Senate this year,” the paper said. “But over time, it may help spell an end to the politics of cultural division.”

We could pause longer to reflect on the idea that the way to end “the politics of cultural division” ran through running brutal attack ads on cultural issues, but suffice it to say: probably not, dude. Nobody wins the culture war, though it is certainly possible for everyone to lose.

But there was something of greater pertinence to our current political moment than the evergreen rationalizations about bombarding voters with millions of dollars worth of mud-bomb ads is the righteous path. 

Every Democrat held up as an example of the new, smart, “aggressively challenging” approach to “radical” Republicans on abortion and gay rights—Bruce Braley in Iowa, Mark Udall in Colorado, Kay Hagan in North Carolina, Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, and Mark Pryor in Arkansas—lost.

Democrats lost nine seats that year. It was the worst Senate bloodbath since 1980, taking the GOP from an eight-seat deficit to a 54-46 majority. So it’s a little unfair to pick on the Times or Democrats for thinking that a new message on abortion would save senators in the Deep South and Upper Midwest. They didn’t know that a hurricane-force wind was about to drive a wave of epic proportions over their heads.

It’s probably not worth wondering how Democratic incumbents in Louisiana and Arkansas lost. But it is worth considering how they missed so badly in competitive states, and even blue state Colorado. The answer is candidate quality.

In Colorado, Republicans found Rep. Cory Gardner, who was, yes, a co-sponsor of the Life at Conception Act and an ardent conservative, but also a peach of a guy: amiable, good at retail politics, an accomplished legislator, and decidedly non-scary.

In Iowa, State Sen. Joni Ernst was certainly in favor of “personhood” for the unborn, but she might be the single most normal-seeming person who has ever won a Senate seat. Calling Joni Ernst “radical” would be like calling the Iowa State Fair butter sculpture contest “radical.”

In North Carolina, state House Speaker Thom Tillis no doubt had presided over legislation restricting abortion, but he looks like the guy in the collage of past Rotary Club presidents and talks like he’s reading you the evening news. Radically mainstream. 

Contrast that to the 2022 Senate elections in which Republicans fielded a much more ideologically moderate field of candidates. The map was just about as good for the party as it had been in 2014, with easy wins for the taking in Georgia and Arizona and a favorable national climate to carry them in Pennsylvania and Nevada, and maybe New Hampshire, too.

In Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Georgia, three of the top races, it was hard to even determine the ideological bearings of the Republican candidates, Mehmet Oz, Kari Lake, and Herschel Walker. They were certainly not the Tea Party ideologues that the Times and Democrats had decried in the previous decade. And yet, all three were easily identified as “radicals,” because they were such weirdos: celebrity oddballs without an accomplishment in government. Whatever they believed, or said they believed, they seemed radical as people.

2014 was the pinnacle of the Mitch McConnell era of Republican politics. Conservative? Sure. Square as a church potluck casserole? You betcha.   

2022 marked the ascension of Trump Republicanism, in which ideology became mostly irrelevant, but attitude was everything.

Indeed, we had proof of how little salience ideology had in those races. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp blew away Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams in their rematch while Walker staggered and stumbled to a loss on the Senate side. By any metric, Kemp was, as a whole, more conservative than Walker. In North Carolina, home to one of the closest races in the 2020 presidential election, Rep. Ted Budd cruised into a Senate seat in 2022 despite being an inorganic rock of conservative ideology.

But Kemp and Budd were of the old McConnell model, in which Republicans could get away with hardline stances if they were, you know, good at politics and effective at governing. 

A decade ago, the conventional wisdom held that the problem Republicans had was that they were too conservative. The Tea Party, it was widely believed, had swept into power extremists who would drive Republicans off the cliff. What many inside and outside of the Republican Party failed to see was that the change wasn’t about the battle of ideas, but about their abandonment.

Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado was, by any measurement, a paragon of Tea Partyism when he appeared on the national scene. His 2010 Senate defeat in Colorado was one of the prime pieces of evidence in the story about how the rightward march of the GOP was costing the party

Buck came back four years later and won a House seat in eastern Colorado. It was a good year for Republicans, and the district was more amenable to his views than the state as a whole. So Buck didn’t have to change his stances to try to win.

But what he found when he got to Congress surprised him. And now, he’s retiring.

“The Tea Party was a group of individuals who believed that the Constitution should be strictly adhered to,” Buck told me in a recent interview. “Now we are into this, ‘We’ll play by the same rules as the other side’ and ‘We’ll burn down the building just like the other side.’ It scares me.”

Buck certainly didn’t change his ideology. And lest you think he’s gone squishy by refusing to vote for the cockamamie impeachment of Alejandro Mayorkas, the homeland security secretary, he immediately gave back all the strange new respect he won from the left by calling for the Cabinet to use the 25th Amendment to remove President Biden from power. Buck did not turn into a people pleaser.

We could debate how much the Tea Party movement was astroturf (at least some) or how much of it was anti-Obama xenophobia (more than its defenders would like to admit), but there’s no doubt that people like Buck were utterly sincere in their views about the size and scope of government. What they didn’t know, however, was that the lasting part of their movement would not be ideological, but attitudinal.

The cause of the revolution was mostly forgotten, but its methods and modes were preserved: perpetual outrage, denouncing institutions, and, always, enmity for one’s political foes. What you said would matter far less than how you said it, preferably with a sneer and an insult for the other side.

No, Democrats did not bring “an end to the politics of cultural division” in 2014 with attack ads on abortion. Instead, they lost by trying to paint very normal-seeming people as kooks. And no, Republicans did not win the Senate in 2022 by moderating on issues. They lost because of kooky candidates.

What happened in between was that the GOP fell in love with the idea of a permanent revolution, personified in Donald Trump. A movement that started in obedience to the Constitution ended in obedience to a man who wanted it suspended.

“We’re at a time in American politics that I am not going to lie on behalf of my presidential candidate on behalf of my party,” Buck said. “And I’m very sad that others in my party have taken the position that as long as we get the White House, it doesn’t really matter what we say.”

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.