Rational Republicans Are Finally Fighting Back
REPRINTED FROM FORBES
A decade ago, while the conspiratorial fervor of the Tea Party was sweeping across the GOP, sane, responsible Republicans sat on their hands. Through the tumult, level-headed public servants remained convinced that Reagan’s 11th Commandment, “Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican” would rule the day. It didn’t. By the time Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal warned that the GOP was becoming “the stupid party,” the fight was mostly lost.
Their misplaced faith in civility left rational Republicans disarmed and disorganized in the face of a cultish, right-wing purge. The final phase of the flight of the Dixiecrats into the GOP swept credible, responsible figures from all positions of leadership. A party that had been led by figures like Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Jack Kemp was transformed into a circus. Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz, and Ted Nugent became Republican stars while the party’s brain trust was gutted. When Trump arrived on the scene, Republicans had no moral or intellectual defenses remaining.
A resistance is stirring. This year, serious candidates have emerged from the responsible center to challenge extremist Republican incumbents. Unlike a previous generation of rational Republicans, this new wave is willing to drop the veneer of faux civility that has hobbled past centrists, and fight to win.
Paul Martin is a Republican running for Congress in California’s 48th District, looking to unseat a man described as “The Kremlin’s favorite Congressman.” Rep. Dana Rohrabacher has held this seat for almost 30 years. Over the past decade, he’s earned attention for his strange role as a stout defender of Russian interests in the US Congress. He even shrugged off an FBI warning in 2012 that he had earned a code name from Russian intelligence as a potential “agent of influence.”
Rohrabacher’s Orange County district has been such a safe center for Republican politics that his antics have drawn little attention. Enter Paul Martin.
Why haven’t Rohrabacher’s constituents, in the heart of Reagan country, revolted against this misuse of their authority? “They just don’t know yet,” Martin explained in an interview. Sitting in a safe Republican seat and facing no challenge from the rational center, Rohrabacher has never been pressed to answer to his constituents for his positions. And those positions are increasingly out of step with a Southern California district facing rapid cultural and demographic transformations.
“FBI Director Chris Wray has stated that the Russians interfered in our elections,” Martin explained. “Former Republican Senator and current National Intelligence Director, Dan Coats has confirmed it. John Huntsman has recognized it. Mueller’s investigation has already produced more than a dozen indictments and several guilty pleas. As revelations emerge, interest will rise.”
A crowded field of Democratic challengers threatens to split the left in California’s open primary, creating a unique opportunity for Martin to represent the resistance in November. The prospect of a credible Republican challenge from the center could put Rohrabacher on the defensive for the first time in this newly restive district. By forcing Rohrabacher to finally defend his record against a Republican challenge, Martin could change the face of Republican politics in California.
On the opposite coast in North Carolina, Gina Collias is looking to achieve a similar upset against a Republican incumbent. The 10th Congressional District was drawn to favor Republicans, encompassing the suburbs of Charlotte and Asheville. However, in the Trump era the suburbs aren’t what they used to be. Collias is calculating that Rep. Patrick McHenry has failed to keep pace with the changing character and interests of his district.
McHenry has drawn little attention on his seven-term rise to Chief Deputy Whip. As a member of the Republican leadership team in Congress, McHenry has been silent on the party’s race to the extremes on issues like immigration, abortion, gun rights, taxes, and health care. Collias is offering voters a rational alternative that hasn’t been seen in a Republican primary in North Carolina in decades.
Collias has forcefully backed a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. She wants to reform the GOP tax bill to protect “the 99% of Americans left behind” and address its irresponsible fiscal impact. She’s proposing to toughen environmental protections, implement sensible gun regulations, reform the ACA to expand its reach and make it more affordable, and hold accountable those who have collaborated with foreign enemies to corrupt our election process. In other words, Collias is the kind of pragmatic, solution-oriented Republican we haven’t seen in national politics in more than a decade, plus one important distinction. She’s willing to fight for what she believes in, a trait lost among Republican moderates long ago.
In a district Trump won by a significant margin, Collias is reaching out to the anti-Trump resistance. She hopes to build an unconventional coalition of suburban women, students, minorities, and other voters alienated by the GOP’s shift toward insanity. Offering the district a rational Republican voice for the first time in modern history, Collias is pulling for an upset. Win or lose, she’s carving a new path that others are likely to follow, hoping to bend the GOP back toward common sense.
For decades, the middle of the country has leaned right, but that may be changing. Texas Senator Ted Cruz earned his place in Washington in 2012 with a bold insurgent campaign against a well-funded, established GOP figure. Republican challenger Stefano de Stefano is now running Cruz’ own playbook against him, and he just scored a surprising endorsement.
Last week the Dallas Morning News endorsed de Stefano in an editorial that recounted the main points against Cruz. Editors explained, “Cruz's elbows have been so sharp and his disdain for deal-making so pronounced, that he's often stymied his own party's agenda.” They pointed out de Stefano’s pragmatism, a trait more in keeping with the state’s emerging majority than with the radical extremism that has defined the one-party state in recent years. They summed up the promise of a de Stefano campaign with a line displaying the exhaustion many Texas voters feel. According to the editors, the newcomer promises a “return to normalcy.”
After years of Cruz’s high-publicity antics, the simple prospect of normalcy may be enough to sway Texas voters. Cruz has burned a streak of undirected outrage through the Senate. Al Franken called him the Dwight Schrute of politics. Republican Congressman, Peter King, said he has “no friends left anywhere.” The Atlantic described him as one of the most hated men in Washington.
His handling of the 2016 Republican Presidential Primary was a clinic in Cruzism. He drew the ire of Trump voters by refusing to endorse the party’s nominee at the GOP Convention. Then he angered the NeverTrump movement by folding under pressure late in the campaign and campaigning for Trump. His persona of endless spitefulness has earned enemies without making friends, leaving him increasingly isolated and ineffective. Despite the virulence of the GOP primary electorate, voters may be ready for a break. With Cruz showing signs of remarkable weakness against a well-funded, charismatic Democratic challenger, primary voters might switch to a better bet.
It’s too early guess how these challenges will play out, but the mere fact that they’re occurring is historic. Republican pragmatists are infamous for their refusal to fight back against the extremes. For generations, the GOP center has stood on an elitist ethic of gentility, expecting to outlast the shifting passions of the rabble. That strategy has been a universal failure that has converted the GOP into a rambling disaster, good at winning elections and utterly incapable of governing. A new generation of principled Republicans with the stomach for a fight offers hope for a sane Republican future.