How To Make It in the New GOP
It helps if conservatives love you. One day in the life of a Republican hopeful.
Photograph by David Weigel.
The man who would be U.S. senator is running late. Just 15 minutes or so. Nobody’s panicking. Richard Mourdock just refused to take a taxi from Reagan National Airport, and his arrival at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) depends on the whims of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. “He’s cheap!” says Diane Hubbard, Mourdock’s grassroots director. “This is how he is. It’s one of the reasons I work for him.”
Mourdock arrives, hauling his own luggage, and hands it off. He’s given a binder of his CPAC duties, and his guest speaker badge. “They were giving me the stink-eye as I walked in without that,” he says. I point out that the hotel’s been prepping for invasions by the Occupy movement; maybe they put him on the watch list.
“Good call,” he says. “I have that militancy about me.”
No, he doesn’t. Mourdock is a fit 60-year-old man, average height, with thick eyebrows hovering over a hawklike nose. He looks a bit like the actor Dan Hedaya—Nick Tortelli, Carla’s ex-husband, on Cheers. He’s been Indiana’s state treasurer since 2006. Since early last year he’s been running against Sen. Richard Lugar, first elected in 1976, one of the GOP’s last elder statesmen. Mourdock is a favorite with the GOP’s most conservative base, having already won the endorsements of the Tea Party Express, Citizens United, and most of the other groups that humiliated incumbent Republicans in 2010.
The humiliation often starts at CPAC. This is the conference where right-wing challengers introduce themselves to true believers and unbelieving reporters. Every conservative insurgent—Rick Santorum is just the latest—quotes an old Ronald Reagan speech about the need to distinguish themselves from liberals with “bold pastels and bright colors.” Reagan said that at a CPAC.
What are the bold colors in a race against Lugar? This is a tricky question. His biggest recent sins have been voting for Barack Obama’s two Supreme Court nominees, allowing Obama to use his image in some 2008 campaign ads, and serving in Washington too long. He doesn’t make a fuss when liberals act out. He doesn’t draw contrasts. “You need to draw contrasts,” says Mourdock. “I haven’t endorsed, but I think our strongest presidential candidates are Santorum, then Gingrich, then Romney, in that order—because Santorum draws the contrast.”
Right now, though, nobody recognizes him. If they do, they give him space. He’s completely unbothered by the early-morning crowd of activists as he’s guided up an escalator and over to “Blogger’s Row.” Finally, once he gets to the mezzanine, he runs into Josh Gillespie, a blogger for Hoosier Access. “It’s good to see you,” says Gillespie. “We’ll catch up.”Hoosier Access is one of the conservative sites that has tracked Mourdock’s campaign from a perspective of please-please-please-let-this-guy-win. If Mourdock has a good CPAC, he’ll meet a bunch of these people, do friendly media, and meet potential donors. On Saturday, at 3 p.m., he’ll give a speech to the CPAC ballroom from the stage where now-Sen. Marco Rubio and now-Rep. Allen West introduced themselves to the national press. Until then, it’s all about small meetings. “Last year, the first time I’d come here, I showed up and I hadn’t made a formal announcement,” he says. “It was great to ask people: If I made the run, would you be able to help? Obviously, I got a lot of encouragement.”
Audrey Mullen, the publicist who is showing Mourdock around CPAC, leads him into the blogger’s room and scopes out the writers. Larry O’Connor, the editor of [Andrew] Breitbart.tv, wants Mourdock for an interview, but he needs “five minutes to get my Internet connection up.” Moe Lane, a blogger at RedState, has time right now. Mourdock went to the conservative mega-blog’s conference, the RedState Gathering—the one at which Rick Perry announced that he would run for president, neglecting to say that he’d completely blow it. Lane pulls him into the hallway, away from the chatter of bloggers complaining that their damn wireless isn’t working, and points his video camera.
“How do you feel about the 2012 elections?” asks Lane.
“I’m thrilled,” says Mourdock. “I’m running against a 36-year incumbent. When we started this race, people thought I was crazy. Our polling data are fantastic.”
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.