Deception & Misdirection
Meet the Beatens
Conservative populism has chalked up numerous wins over the last decade. So why do we only hear about the same handful of Republican losers?
God grant me an enemy who believes stupid things. That’s what I imagine Steve Bannon muttering to himself after Mitch McConnell’s remarks last week in the Rose Garden.
McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, held a joint press conference with President Trump as part of an effort to close divisions within the Republican Party. The coming-together was seen as a response to an insurgent campaign announced by Bannon, the President’s former campaign chairman. Bannon is recruiting candidates to “primary” sitting GOP Senators—to challenge, in Republican primaries, every GOP Senator seeking reelection except for Ted Cruz of Texas.
McConnell, answering a question about Bannon’s effort, said:
Look, you know, the goal here is to win elections in November. Back in 2010 and 2012, we nominated several candidates—Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle, Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock. They’re not in the Senate. And the reason for that was that they were not able to appeal to a broader electorate in the general election. My goal as the leader of the Republican Party in the Senate is to keep us in the majority. The way you do that is not complicated. You have to have nominate people who can actually win, because winners make policy and losers go home.
Right. The key to victory in politics is to win, not lose. Got it. Thanks, Mitch.
McConnell’s point, of course, is that the Republican Party shouldn’t nominate people like O’Donnell (Delaware) and Angle (Nevada), U.S. Senate nominees who lost in 2010, and Akin (Missouri) and Mourdock (Indiana), nominees who lost in 2012. Why did he pick those particular losers, and not, say, Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin, George Allen in Virginia, or Carly Fiorina in California? Republicans lost 13 U.S. Senate races in 2010 and 23 in 2012, not to mention 12 in 2014 and 12 in 2016. How did O’Donnell, Angle, Akin, and Mourdock end up in Mitch McConnell’s Hall of Fame for losers?
Because the news media and Establishment Republicans say they belong there.
If one selected four people at random from the 36 Republican Senate losers in 2010 and 2012, the chance of picking those four is 1 in 1,413,720.
So why, of all those losers, do they pick the same ones over and over?
See if you notice a pattern:
- Brad Brannon, S. News, November 15, 2012: “The Senate minority leader [McConnell] was the biggest loser [in the 2012 election] who was not on the ballot. He blew his chance for the second straight time to run the Senate, because of the Tea Party candidates Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin. The two unsuccessful Senate candidates played the parts that Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle played in 2008.”
- Chris Cillizza, Washington Post, January 28, 2013: “The names are now famous—actually infamous—in Republican strategist circles: Sharron Angle (Nev.), Christine O’Donnell (Del.), Ken Buck (Colo.), Richard Mourdock (Ind.) and Todd Akin (Mo.). Over the past four years, each of them took races that were somewhere between slam-dunks and should-have-wons and managed to lose them. Take those five seats and put them into Republican hands and the Senate is a 50-50 partisan split.”
- David Weigel, Slate, February 4, 2013: “In a front page Sunday New York Times story, American Crossroads president Stephen J. Law [ally of Karl Rove] said that Republicans had ‘blown a significant number of races because the wrong candidates were selected.’ . . . Who were the wrong candidates, the scrubs who cost Republicans the Senate? This is the list: Christine O’Donnell (Delaware), Ken Buck (Colorado), Sharron Angle (Nevada), Richard Mourdock (Indiana), and Todd Akin.”
- John Whitesides, Reuters, July 18, 2013: “Many Republicans still have painful memories of the last two elections, when contentious primaries produced Senate nominees such as Todd Akin in Missouri, Richard Mourdock in Indiana, Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware. Each rode the momentum of the conservative Tea Party movement to the Republican nomination, then withered amid campaign-trail missteps.”
- James Hohmann, Politico, November 27, 2013: “Sharron Angle. Christine O’Donnell. Todd Akin. Richard Mourdock. After Republican primaries produced that horror show of candidates in two consecutive elections, probably costing the party control of the Senate, GOP leaders vowed that 2014 must be different.”
- Andrew Taylor, Associated Press, December 12, 2013: “Club for Growth and Senate Conservatives Fund [conservative activist groups] on several instances have won the battle but caused Republicans to lose the war. Over the past two election cycles, they’ve backed several flawed tea party candidates–Richard Mourdock in Indiana and Todd Akin in Missouri last year; Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, Sharron Angle in Nevada and Ken Buck in Colorado in 2010. All won the GOP primaries but lost to Democrats in general elections that Republicans felt they should have won.”
- Leigh Ann Caldwell, CNN, March 20, 2014: “In 2010, Sharron Angle won the Senate primary in Nevada and Christine O’Donnell won in Delaware. Two years later, Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin won in Indiana and Missouri respectively. All four went on to lose against the Democrat.”
- Ross Douthat, New York Times blog, April 23, 2014: “The best reason to bet on the Democrats doing somewhat better than expected in these races, though, isn’t current polling (we’re too far out, still), and nor is it merely the general pattern in which savvy incumbent senators eke out re-election in races that the red-blue map suggests that they should lose. Rather, it’s the more specific phenomenon of a Republican Party that, in the age of Obama, has proven remarkably adept at squandering winnable Senate seats and underperforming in Senate races, with all sorts of candidates, in red and purple states alike. In part, this has happened because of primary fights that have produced freakishly bad nominees, like Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell and Todd Akin.”
- Aaron Blake, The Washington Post, September 27, 2017: “The Republican Party is no stranger to extreme candidates. It has lost eminently winnable Senate races by picking unelectable nominees like Todd Akin, Sharron Angle, Richard Mourdock and Christine ODonnell in recent years. . . . The likes of Akin, Angle, Mourdock and ODonnell all waded into areas that gave GOP leaders heartburn and made unnecessary mistakes . . . ”
Amazing, isn’t it, how the same four names keep popping up? To anyone who follows politics, O’Donnell, Angle, Akin, and Mourdock as a group are as recognizable as John, Paul, George, and Ringo.
Beatles, meet the Beatens.
Sometimes there are five Beatens, with Ken Buck of Colorado as the fifth, but it’s always O’Donnell, Angle, Akin, and Mourdock.
The idea that The Flub Four cost Republicans control of the Senate in 2010 and 2012 has been internalized among Republican strategists and even among conservative journalists. Byron York of the Washington Examiner wrote November 4, 2014: “Going into this midterm campaign, Republicans were haunted by memories of Christine O’Donnell, Todd Akin, Sharron Angle and Richard Mourdock. The Republican candidates who ran for the Senate from Delaware, Missouri, Nevada and Indiana in 2010 and 2012 proved famously not up to the job, and their gaffe-ridden campaigns motivated the GOP to focus on recruiting better candidates.”
If one selected four people at random from the 36 Republican Senate losers in 2010 and 2012, the chance of picking those four is 1 in 1,413,720. Including Ken Buck, the chance of picking those five is 1 in 45,239,040. So why, of all those losers, do they pick the same ones over and over?
Because they want to discredit the idea of a grassroots revolt that unseats Senators in Republican primaries. Citing those four or five makes your point; you just have to ignore the other 32 losers (56 counting 2014 and 2016).
Usually, an incumbent Senator who loses a primary is one who would have lost the general election, anyway. And an incumbent Senator tends to cost his or her party more in resources than a non-incumbent loser, because incumbents have the political pull to get more resources wasted on their losing efforts. When a party is moribund—burdened with multi-term incumbents who have gotten accustomed to the perks, the power, and the privilege of Washington—primary challenges tend to reinvigorate the party, bringing in energetic newscomers with fresh ideas and bring new grassroots activists into the party.
On occasion, a challenger wins a primary against a seasoned political veteran, then blows the general election because of a lack of experience or because he or she was nominated within being adequately vetted. It happens. Not very often.
Perhaps just as often, it’s the veteran pol who blows it. George Allen of Virginia was running for reelection to the U.S. Senate in 2006 when he messed up. Referring to a Democratic operation with a mohawk haircut (or mullet; accounts vary) who had been following him around, taping his events, Allen called the man “macaca,” apparently meaning to say “mohawk.” “Macaca,” related to macaque monkeys, is an insult in some languages. The man was of South-Asian ethnicity. The news media and their Democratic Party allies labelled Allen a racist, and he was done for.
Allen was no babe-in-the-woods. He was a U.S. Senator, a former U.S. House member, a former state legislator and governor, who, at the time of his fatal error, was one of the front-runners for the 2008 Republican nomination for president.
When he ran to get his seat back six years later, he defeated a Tea Party opponent for the Republican nomination—and went on to lose a race that was clearly winnable.
Allen doesn’t get included on McConnell’s list.
Akin: Most of the time, people who cite the Beatens don’t even know what they’re talking about. For example, they count Missouri’s Todd Akin as a Tea Party-backed challenger who, the story goes, blocked a more electable “mainstream” Republican from the nomination. In fact, Akin tried to garner Tea Party support but actually ran against the Tea Party candidates in the primary; the Tea Partiers lost to Akin in the primary because they split the Tea Party vote. Meanwhile, Akin was helped by Democrats, who flooded the state with ads attacking him as “too conservative,” which was their way of tricking Republican voters into nominating him; he was considered the weakest Republican for the general election. (When Republicans run such a maneuver, it’s called “dirty tricks,” but it’s considered OK for Democrats to do it.)
Akin was an experience politician, having been elected to the state legislature and six times to the U.S. House. Yet, in August before the election, he committed one of the all-time great political blunders, suggesting incorrectly that women don’t get pregnant from rape, and using the term “legitimate rape.” Clearly, he meant, “claims of rapes that are true,” but he seemed to suggest that some rapes are legitimate. That was the end of Akin. (By the way, in countering Akin, some Democrats made the claim that all rape charges are true—an ignorant belief that led to countless lynchings in the Old South.)
Murdock: Indiana’s Murdock successfully challenged Senator Dick Lugar in the primary. Lugar had held office for decades, going back to the days when, as mayor of Indianapolis, he was considered Richard Nixon’s favorite mayor. Lugar had served in the Senate almost 36 years.
Over that time, Lugar had become completely out of touch with his constituents—supporting the corrupt bank and auto bailouts, opposing earmark reform, voting for amnesty and the START treaty, and failing to stand up to President Obama. Characterized fairly as President Obama’s favorite Republican Senator, Lugar was so awful that, after he lost, John Kerry called his defeat “a tragedy to the Senate.”
Astonishingly, Lugar hadn’t had a residence in the state since 1977.
He lost by 22 points and carried only two of the state’s 92 counties. He was the first six-term Senator in 60 years to lose reelection in a primary. Yet his loss in the primary was characterized as somehow the fault of the Tea Party movement.
After Republican primary voters let Lugar know what they thought of him, he returned the favor by refusing to back his party’s nominee.
The myth is that the Tea Party pushed through the nomination of inexperienced, unvetted, unelectable candidate. Mourdock was an experience politician, having been elected twice as a county commissioner and twice as state treasurer (the second time with 62 percent of the vote statewide).
Despite being an experience politician, Mourdock, like Akin, said something incredibly stupid. Two weeks before the election, discussing his views on abortion when the child is the product of rape, he said that “life is that gift from God that I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”
Typical of the reporting of his comments was this, from the Washington Post: “Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock declared during a Tuesday night U.S. Senate debate that a woman who gets pregnant by her rapist is carrying a ‘gift from God’ and thus must have the child.” That’s false, of course; the “gift from God” was a reference to the child’s life, from the child’s perspective, not a suggestion that the child conceived from rape was a gift to the mother. Yet, given the apparent echo of Akin’s earlier comments, and given the eagerness of Establishment Republicans to desert Mourdock in revenge for his takedown of Lugar, that comment was enough to finish him off.
Citing those four or five makes your point; you just have to ignore the other 32 losers (56 counting 2014 and 2016).
Angle: Nevada’s Sharron Angle, a former member of the State Assembly, challenged U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. In the primary, she beat the Establishment choice, a one-term state senator who had talked of “the old days” when people bartered for healthcare by bringing “a chicken to the doctor”—a remark that drew national ridicule. Yes, it was the Establishment candidate who made the memorable mistake. Establishment Republicans worked to torpedo her candidacy, yet she did reasonably well running against Senate Majority Leader Reid, given that no Senate Majority Leader had lost home-state reelection since 1950. Indeed, Angle’s challenge to Reid helped Republicans in other states by forcing Reid into panic mode, causing him to divert Democratic Party and organized-crime resources to his race, resources that could have been used elsewhere.
Two years prior to Angle, John McCain lost Nevada by 12.5 points. Two years after Angle, Mitt Romney lost Nevada by 6.7 points. But Angle, who lost by 5.7 points, is the one considered a colossal loser.
O’Donnell: In Delaware, Christine O’Donnell beat Mike Castle, an anti-science true-believer on Global Warming who would have been a disaster as a Senator. Some argue to Republicans that any Republican, no matter how ignorant or extreme, is preferable to a Democrat.
This is perhaps the one example among the four or five in which the insurgent lives up to his or her reputation as a terrible candidate. Regardless, O’Donnell had little chance of winning once Establishment Republicans threw her under the bus, something they don’t do with their own people. Karl Rove, on Fox News on primary night, ranted about “her checkered background . . . serious questions about how did she make her living . . . how come it took her nearly two decades to pay her college bills . . . why did she sue a well-known conservative think tank . . . [she lacks] rectitude and truthfulness and sincerity and character that voters are looking for. . . . a lot of nutty things she’s been saying . . . this is not a race we’re going to be able to win . . . ” Later, the GOP Establishment did nothing as she was labeled a witch. I’m not kidding. Based on a comment she made on a comedy show years earlier that she had hung out with wiccans in high school, the news media and their Democratic allies made her out to be a witch, and got away with it. And it’s her fault.
Two years prior to O’Donnell, John McCain lost Delaware by 25 points. Two years after O’Donnell, Mitt Romney lost Delaware by 18.6 points. But O’Donnell, who lost by 17 points, is the one considered a colossal loser.
Buck: Colorado’s Ken Buck, the fifth Beaten, was an experienced politician who, in pre-primary polls, was doing better than the Establishment candidate against the incumbent Democrat. What really hurt Buck was that the GOP nominated a politically unskilled businessman, Dan Maes, as its candidate for governor against Democrat John Hickenlooper, mayor of Denver, and Tom Tancredo, a former Republican Congressman running as a third-party candidate. Maes, as the Republican nominee, got only 11 percent of the vote, compared to 36 percent for Tancredo and 51 percent for Hickenlooper. Despite the GOP collapse in the governor’s race, Buck almost won the Senate race.
Buck also made a foot-in-mouth mistake that apparently hurt his campaign. During a mid-October debate on Meet the Press, he said that he believed that “being gay,” in the sense of choosing a same-sex mate, was “a choice.” Although scientists do not know the cause of sexual orientation, the evidence suggests that it is largely rooted in childhood experiences. And, although gay people, like anyone else, can choose celibacy, most people do not consider celibacy an acceptable choice for themselves. So the comment was taken as a serious gaffe. Anti-science leftists are greatly offended at any suggestion to that people aren’t born gay.
Two years prior to Buck, John McCain lost Colorado by nine points. Two years after O’Donnell, Mitt Romney lost Colorado by 5.4 points. But Buck, who lost by 1.7 points, is the one considered a colossal loser.
(In 2014, Buck considered running for the U.S. Senate again, but instead ran successfully for the House seat of Cory Gardner, while Gardner ran successfully for the Senate. Establishment Republicans breathed a sigh of relief that the supposedly terrible candidate Ken Buck didn’t run for the Senate again. Since then, Buck won Gardner’s old House seat in 2014 and 2016 with margins roughly 10-25 points larger than Gardner’s in 2010 and 2012.)
The fate of the Beatens is supposed to provide us with a valuable lesson, that we should stick with Establishment candidates against grassroots populist challengers.
In fact… One of the Beatens wasn’t an insurgent, grassroots populist, or Tea Party candidate. Another was an experienced politician who defeated an incumbent who had practically dared homestate Republicans to oust him. Another was clearly the better generl-election candidate, compared to the Establishment candidate she defeated, and came reasonably close to defeating a Senate Majority Leader, which hadn’t happened in 60 years. A fourth, after defeating an out-of-touch Establishment pol, was betrayed by her party and called a witch—literally, a witch—and still did better than McCain or Romney. And a fifth did remarkably well; he almost won, while his party’s candidate for governor got 11 percent of the vote.
We are supposed to ignore the losses of Establishment candidates, and the success of Tea Party candidates like Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Mike Lee of Utah, and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. Also, Jerry Moran of Kansas, who led the National Republican Senatorial Committee during its successful 2014 campaign to take over the Senate for the GOP. Also, Ted Cruz of Texas, Marco Rubio of Florida, and Rand Paul of Kentucky.
In their initial campaigns, Toomey and Lee challenged Republican incumbents, and Cruz, Rubio, and Paul beat Establishment favorites who, we were told, were more electable. Toomey and Lee, Johnson and Moran, Paul and Rubio were all reelected, and Cruz is heavily favored to win reelection next year.
Which side represents the future of the Republican Party? Cruz, Rubio, and Paul, plus Tea Party-backed political neophyte Ben Carson, got 45.2 percent of the vote in the last pre-primary poll in 2016; Donald Trump had 36.4 percent. That total of 81.6 percent support can be compared to a total of 9.5 percent for the two major candidates of the Establishment, Jeb Bush (5.3 percent) and John Kasich (4.2 percent). Again: 81.6 percent to 9.5 percent.
The fate of the Beatens is supposed to provide us with a valuable lesson, that we should stick with Establishment candidates against grassroots populist challengers.
By the way, McConnell himself attracted one of those loser Tea Party challengers in 2014. The challenger, Matt Bevin, didn’t beat McConnell, but a year later Bevin was elected governor (only the third Republican governor in Kentucky since World War II), with a running mate who was the first African-American ever elected statewide in Kentucky, where the state Democratic Party emblem is the white-supremacy rooster.
The role of the Tea Party movement in promoting diversity is clear from this fact: In the period immediately following the appointment of Tim Scott of South Carolina to the U.S. Senate (to which he was later elected), there were ten governors and U.S. Senators classified as “non-white.” Of those, seven were Republicans; six were conservative Republicans; and, of the six, five owed their seats to primary endorsements by the Tea Party movement and/or Tea Party activist Sarah Palin.
Republicans like McConnell analyzed the results of the 2012 election and produced the infamous “autopsy”—the report declaring that Republicans’ only chance for success in the future was to adopt their own version of the Democrats’ racist/xenophobic “identity politics” strategy. They looked at the 2013 government shutdown, and misread the polling data to convince themselves that it was a disaster for the party. (See my article in Deception and Misdirection).
And they fell for an interpretation of the 2010 and 2012 elections in which the grassroots populist rebellion cost them control of the Senate. Essentially, they adopted the interpretation put forth by their adversaries.
A RINO, as I’ve noted before, is not a liberal or moderate Republican. Some conservatives are RINOs, while some liberal/moderate Republicans aren’t.
A RINO is a Republican who accepts the premises put forth by the other side—and, based on that twisted view of reality, surrenders without a fight.
RINOs don’t need Democrats to beat them. They do a great job of beating themselves.