Americans wanted to keep the country they know, and said so Tuesday. Now it’s time for responsible Republicans to take their party back from the fringe that loses them elections.
It’s not true that Republicans needed better candidates. They had excellent contenders. The problem was that the electable ones couldn’t leap the lunacy barrier erected by the right wing. They couldn’t clinch nominations. Or they withdrew from races in the face of the party base’s social nastiness, scientific ignorance and fiscal irresponsibility.
In Indiana, Republicans had the superb Sen. Richard Lugar – a sure shot for re-election. Lugar was a statesman who refused to transform himself into a right-wing gargoyle during the primary. The party replaced him with a tea-party favorite, who like the Republican loser in the Missouri Senate race, made weird comments about rape during the campaign.
In Connecticut, the totally unacceptable Linda McMahon lost her second quest for a U.S. Senate seat after spending $91 million of her own money – but not before having managed to defeat two plausible Republican moderates this year and in 2010. In this round’s Republican primary, the wrestling magnate with a yacht named “Sexy Bitch” swept away the much-respected former Rep. Chris Shays on a tide of cash.
Another admired Republican, Jon Huntsman, withdrew from the race for the presidential nomination rather than debase himself with arguments that the Earth was formed 5,000 years ago. The former conservative governor of Utah provided the most noble tweet of the campaign: “I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.”
You knew he couldn’t survive the sort of primary race that included threats against Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. (“We would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas,” Texas Gov. Rick Perry actually said.) By catering to this mentality but seeming just a bit saner than the others, Mitt Romney won the nomination and lost the election.
The morning after, Steve Schmidt, a Republican strategist turned MSNBC commentator, minced no words: “We have given away five U.S. Senate seats over two election cycles by nominating loons. I mean, people who are fundamentally, manifestly unqualified to be in the United States Senate.”
Lest we forget, Republicans put out some very strange senatorial candidates two years ago. In Delaware, Christine (“I’m not a witch) O’Donnell lost to the Democrat – after defeating the revered Republican Rep. Mike Castle in the primary. In Nevada, Sharron Angle (“Sharia law” has taken over Dearborn, Mich.) lost to a struggling Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
So entranced was the right wing by its own propaganda that it persisted in framing Republican Sen. Scott Brown’s surprising 2010 win in Massachusetts as local hostility to Obamacare. Brown got away with promising to help defeat the Affordable Care Act only because the electorate already had a state version of it. His luck ran out Tuesday.
In olden days, when moderate Republicans freely roamed New England, Brown would have enjoyed stronger odds for re-election. And in nearby Maine, Republican survivor Olympia Snowe would have probably gone back to the Senate had she not retired, exhausted by attacks from the right.
The tea party didn’t build this alone. It had help from the punditry-industrial-complex – the radio mouths and book-peddling professionals who make a fine living telling the troops that they’re always right and they’re always winning.
Republican analyst Schmidt also said Wednesday that the likes of Donald Trump and Rush Limbaugh need to be “shut down.” What he undoubtedly means is that mature Republican leaders should stop trying to ingratiate themselves with the publicity bottom feeders.
Conscientious Republicans do want their party back. May they get it.
• Froma Harrop is a member of the Providence (R.I.) editorial board.