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Republicans are brimming with confidence about their chances in the 2022 midterms. Knowing that Senate Democrats are unlikely to use their power to outlaw partisan gerrymandering or fight voter suppression laws, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy recently called Speaker Nancy Pelosi a “lame duck.”
Democrats, in turn, are rightly panicking about the impact broad new voter restrictions might have on key Senate races. They can’t afford to lose a single seat from their filament-thin 50-50 majority in order to maintain control of the chamber, and must defend vulnerable incumbents in multiple swing states. But they might have a secret weapon: a radicalized GOP primary electorate that could saddle Republicans with unpopular candidates across the country.
From coast to coast, Republican aspirants for higher office are endorsing (or being forced to endorse, like hostages reading a script at gunpoint) the Big Lie that Joe Biden and the Democrats stole the 2020 election in the crime of the century. The threat is most acute in pivotal purple states like Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Georgia that were ground zero for former President Trump’s weapons-grade vote fraud fantasies. Meanwhile, those potential candidates who are not outright rejecting their “Fauci Ouchies” are at the very least cozying up to the party’s now-substantial anti-vaxxer voting bloc by opposing policies like employer mandates and direct outreach. And some of the party’s elite are also participating in former President Trump’s disturbing effort to recast the Jan. 6 insurrection as a noble uprising.
We’ve seen this before, and it didn’t end well for Republicans.
2010 was a banner year for the GOP. Republicans picked up a staggering 63 seats and took over the U.S. House of Representatives, and tore six seats out of the Democrats’ once-towering Senate majority. But it could have been even worse for Team Blue had Republican primary voters not chosen several poisonously outlandish candidates in close Senate races.
In Nevada, Republicans had a delicious opportunity to knock off the sitting Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid, which would have been the second time in six years they’d pulled that off after then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle lost his 2004 re-election bid in South Dakota. But Nevada Assemblywoman and Tea Party stalwart Sharron Angle defeated the GOP’s establishment candidate in the primary. Angle had championed a Scientology-backed prison education program and was thought to be too extreme by state party leaders. She went on to lose decisively to Reid after a series of destructive gaffes, including when she claimed that the city of Dearborn, Michigan, was governed by sharia, and when she released a last-minute attack on immigrants that was widely panned as racist.
In Delaware, where the national mood gave Republicans a chance at a special election pickup, Republican primary voters chose Christine O’Donnell over party favorite Rep. Mike Castle. O’Donnell, who lost a general election race to Joe Biden in 2008 by almost 30 points, was a truly strange person. Her baggage included an impressive list of bizarre statements, including a claim that homosexuality was a “psychological defect,” and she eventually had to put out a now-legendary ad in which she declared, “I am not a witch,” after old video surfaced of her talking about “dabbling in witchcraft” on Bill Maher’s talk show. She lost to a replacement-level Democratic bore (now-Sen. Chris Coons) by almost 17 points.
Kicking away gettable races with goofball candidates chosen by the GOP’s increasingly unhinged primary voters was a theme that continued in 2012. Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, in a televised debate with Democrat Joe Donnelly, said that, “even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.” Mourdock, a Tea Party favorite, had taken out establishment incumbent Sen. Richard Luger in the GOP primary. In Missouri, Republican candidate Todd Akin gave a calamitous TV interview during which he argued that rape rarely leads to pregnancy because, “if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Mourdock and Akin both lost their general election bids in states that were rapidly moving away from Democrats.
Of course, these controversies sound downright quaint by 2021 standards, when there are multiple Republicans in Congress who have expressed support for a lurid conspiracy theory holding that, among other things, the national Democratic Party ran a sex trafficking ring out of a D.C. pizza joint. Trump, who remains the de facto party leader despite losing the 2020 election by more than 7 million votes, spent years incessantly lying and launching attacks on allies and adversaries alike that would have been considered career-endingly sociopathic a decade ago. Today, that’s just how elected Republicans are expected to act in public, a classic example of what the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan called “defining deviancy down.”
A party remade in Trump’s image will inevitably be led by people with the former president’s non-existent relationship to truth and decency. In Congress and in state parties, if you don’t say you believe the 2020 election was stolen by big-city Democrats, your career is basically over. And now that the party has rallied, over and over again, behind men accused of rape and sexual misconduct, you are expected to line up unthinkingly behind anyone, no matter how vile and credible the accusations against them.
However, just because these antics fire up the Trumpified Republican base doesn’t mean this kind of groupthink won’t have dire consequences for Republicans. In Georgia, a key toss-up where Democrats shockingly swept a double run-off in January, Trump is pushing for former NFL star Herschel Walker to take on incumbent Democrat Sen. Raphael Warnock. Struggling with mental illness absolutely should not disqualify anyone from public office, but Walker has much more troubling events in his past than his diagnosis with Dissociative Identity Disorder (once known as Multiple Personality Disorder). In 2005, his ex-wife took out a restraining order against him and accused him of “physically abusive and extremely threatening behavior,” including one incident in which he allegedly pointed a gun at her head and said, “I’m going to blow your f***ing brains out.”
State Republican Parties are also rapidly falling into the hands of extremists and 2020 truthers like Arizona state party chair Kelli Ward, leaders whose decisions and rhetoric can shape the outcome of partisan primaries. That state is another possible GOP pickup next year, with incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly running to win a full term for the first time after winning last year’s special election. Yet, at a Trump rally in Phoenix Saturday night, a number of candidates for governor and Senate marched out and endorsed the stolen election conspiracy, which is now essentially a litmus test for anyone seeking to win a Republican primary. After Jim Lamon, a GOP candidate for Senate, said there were “serious problems” with the 2020 election in Arizona, the crowd broke out into chants of “Lock her up,” a threat aimed squarely at Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs.
In Pennsylvania, some party insiders are terrified that a Trumpist candidate will get crushed in the open gubernatorial race (Democratic incumbent Tom Wolf is term-limited). But there should be worry about the race for retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey’s seat too, where the top fundraiser so far is a conservative media personality, Kathy Barnette, who considers the Biden administration’s vaccine outreach an attempt to “control our lives” and has the endorsement of Trump’s deranged former National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn. Barnette, who lost the House race for Pennsylvania’s 4th district by 19 points last year and insisted it was stolen, is, of course, an ardent 2020 truther.
Trumpworld is surely thrilled to see the former president’s acolytes tightening their grip on the party. The trouble for Republicans is what is required to secure loyalty from the MAGA minions in Mar-a-Lago happens to be pretty toxic politically. Most Americans are, thankfully, anti-insurrection and believe that Trump stoked the fire that led to the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. Two-thirds of voters recognize the day’s events for what they were, a (shoddy, farcical, but dangerous) attempt to overturn the results of the November election. Recent surveys show that only about one-third of voters believe the 2020 election was stolen. 76 percent of American adults are sufficiently pro-vaccine that they either got their jabs or plan to.
Democrats learned, or should have learned, in 2016 that you should not necessarily root for your opponents to nominate the most awful person in the field on the assumption that voters will automatically reject them. Partisanship is stronger than it was in 2010 and 2012, and it is certainly possible that the nuttiest GOP candidate in every one of these races could beat their opponents if the national environment is sufficiently bad for President Biden and the Democrats. But if Republican voters insist on nominating a bunch of Big Lying, pro-insurrection, anti-vaxxers in purple-state Senate races, they might all be very unpleasantly surprised on election night.