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"Republicans," reported Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns recently in the New York Times on the never-ending turmoil in GOP ranks, "are increasingly mystified by their own grass roots, an electorate they thought they knew, and distressed that a wave of turnover in their ranks could fundamentally change the character of Congress."
The story, which is excellent, details angst around two races. First, there is the Alabama Senate race where the nominated standard-bearer, former Judge Roy Moore, thinks there are American communities living under Sharia law and was twice thrown off the state bench for defying federal court orders. And in Tennessee, where Gov. Bill Haslam's decision to stand down from running to succeed Bob Corker, is clearing the way for former Rep. Marsha Blackburn (last seen hanging out with a delegation sent by Austria's far-right party) to get the GOP nod there. It is clearly a situation that would distress anyone familiar with the broad strokes of the American constitutional system and/or the historical trajectory of far-right Austrians.
Yet viewed from a distance, the clash between the GOP establishment and the rebels really does look in many ways like the narcissism of small differences. Ed Gillespie, the Republican nominee for governor of Virginia, is as establishment as they come. But aware that free market economic policy doesn't move voters these days (if it ever did), he's running a campaign of racial demagoguery completely indistinguishable from something Donald Trump, Moore, Blackburn or any of the outsiders would do. At the end of the day, it's a means to an end.
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In the immortal words of Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio on Moore, "He's going to be for tax reform, I think."
Republican agita about their base is truly mystifying on some level — primarily the establishment's mystification itself is kind of mystifying.
Gillespie — a former RNC chair, Bush administration official, and K Street lobbyist — won his primary campaign against an anti-establishment racist conspiracy theorist named Corey Stewart.
But now Gillespie is running against Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam with a campaign based entirely on unhinged conspiracy theories and race baiting. And nobody in Washington (which, on the Republican side at least, is largely composed of people who commute in from Virginia anyway) is bothered by it at all.
Virginia was a red state until recently, but a combination of demographic change inside the state and the shifting demographic compositions of the two parties has given it a distinctly bluish hue. Hillary Clinton beat Trump there last November by a larger margin than Barack Obama won in 2012, despite running considerably weaker on a nationwide basis.
But polls in Virginia have been surprisingly close, and the key campaign theme for Gillespie has been an unhinged allegation that electing Northam governor will lead to Virginia's citizens being terrorized by the Salvadoran gang MS-13.
It sounds too stupid to be true, but the brutal reality is that, per the Washington Post, "Virginia Republican Ed Gillespie has released four ads" — four, not one — "that try to tie his Democratic rival for governor, Ralph Northam, to MS-13 gang violence."
The way the ads work is to dwell at length on the evils of MS-13 (which are quite real) and then say Northam's name a bunch, thus attempting to create a link between a brutal criminal organization and an Army doctor turned pediatric neurosurgeon.
It reaches a climax with boldface type screaming "RALPH NORTHAM: WEAK ON MS-13," without raising any specific respect in which Northam is allegedly weak on MS-13.
There's no "soft on crime" furlough program in this round of Willie Horton tactics. Instead, the "policy issue" (if one wants to call it that) at the fulcrum of the ads is that Northam is against legislation that would have barred Virginia municipalities from designating themselves as "sanctuary cities," where local law enforcement commits to not reporting on residents' immigration status.
Whatever one thinks of that legislation, the fact is that there are no sanctuary cities in Virginia, which makes it pretty cut-and-dried that sanctuary cities are not behind the rise of MS-13 activity in the state.
Beyond logic, the Gillespie/Trump stance on the linkage between their preferred immigration policy and crime control is ridiculous. Law enforcement organizations are profoundly skeptical of efforts to drag local cops into immigration enforcement precisely because it can make it harder to face down violent criminals like MS-13. After all, nobody is going to come forward as a witness or informant if they think it could lead to getting a spouse or a sibling deported.
On a federal level, in its waning years, the Obama administration tried to force immigration enforcement officials to narrowly target their resources on apprehending gang members and violent criminals. Trump, in alignment with the desires of rank-and-file Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, has shifted back to broad-brush enforcement that aims to instill fear in as many immigrants as possible.
The point, however, is that Gillespie and his campaign feel that a hysterical racialized scare campaign about gang rape with zero grounding in policy reality will sell better than some kind of tedious seminar about immigration's impact on wages.
Establishment Republicans mystified by the party's grassroots activists and rank-and-file members, in short, should consider taking a look at their own campaigns and policy rhetoric.
Jeb Bush ran for president on the theory that tax cuts would generate 4 percent economic growth. Marco Rubio argued that Barack Obama was deliberately trying to damage the United States. Ed Gillespie claims that sanctuary cities that don't even exist are responsible for the rise of a violent international criminal organization. The same congressional Republicans who swore for years that growing debt was the biggest threat to the country are lining up behind a budget that will authorize more than $1 trillion in new borrowing to finance tax cuts for the rich.
The difference between these guys and the new crop of kooks — between a respected colleague like Bob Corker and a feared soon-to-be-colleague like Marsha Blackburn — as I understand it, is that the establishment politicians are aware that they are lying. Nobody at Republican Governors Association headquarters, in other words, actually thinks that Gillespie believes a crackdown on Virginia sanctuary cities (which, again, don't exist) will reduce the risk of MS-13 violence. He's not an ignorant maniac, in other words; he's just working with ad guys and conservative media to promote ignorance and mania in the general population.
The problem is the marks grow up.
The goal of these Gillespie ads, of course, is to persuade swing voters. But the universe of partisans is larger than the universe of swing voters. And, naturally, communications from party leaders feel more persuasive to party loyalists than to floaters. So while Gillespie's ignorant demagoguery may or may not sway the tiny slice of swing voters he needs to persuade to win, it will definitely persuade the large mass of GOP loyalists — people whose views on abortion or gun regulation would lead them to back Gillespie no matter what he said or did — that a crackdown on fake sanctuary cities is what the state needs to stay safe.
Long story short, if party leaders say ridiculous things, your party's rank and file will believe ridiculous things. If they say that news outlets that try to puncture the bubble of ridiculousness are exhibiting "liberal bias," your party's rank and file will learn to dismiss credible sources of information.
And last but by no means least, if they lie about what their policy agenda will do, your rank and file will develop an accurate sense that they are being repeatedly betrayed by their leaders.