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.”
“How do you feel about the conservative grass roots?”
“They are fantastic.”
Mourdock does four of these interviews in 20 minutes. He gets roughly the same questions, and gives basically the same answers. How can he win the general election? Well, the Democrat he’d be running against, Rep. Joe Donnelly, spent $1.7 million to barely win in 2010, while Mourdock won 63 percent of the vote in his re-election as state treasurer. He gives the same answers on-camera as he gives in just-talking chats, and slips loose the same secret-sounding nuggets. Psst: His polls have Lugar under 45 percent. Keep this between us.
When he gets a breather, Mourdock grabs fresh fruit from the breakfast table and watches Sen. Jim DeMint speak on a closed circuit. “He’s pledged that he wouldn’t endorse against incumbents this year,” says Mourdock, as DeMint rattles off all the senators he helped elect in 2010. No big deal; Mourdock is about to head to Capitol Hill to meet possible congressional supporters. He has a little time to explain why he became a conservative.
“Watching Reagan and just starting to see things revive again—he was making America so proud of who we were,” he says. “I started reading a lot, reading Milton Friedman and William Simon, folks like that.”
Did he have some eureka moment? “You know, I think I probably did. I’m a geologist. Odd thing, to be a state treasurer and never have taken a finance or an accounting class. But as a geologist, you learn very quickly that all wealth comes from the earth. What we mine, what we grow, what we harvest. Reading Friedman’s stuff made all of that come together.”
Nowadays, no Republican politician claims to want his job. Mitt Romney has spun a fantastical tale in which his 1994 race for Senate was a sort of experiment, to test how much he loved the private sector, and his decision to serve one term as governor had nothing to do with the polls showing him losing. Mourdock has his own odd story. He made a career at Standard Oil. He ran for Congress twice, in 1990 and 1992. “I was ahead,” he remembers, “and then George H.W. Bush said ‘Read my lips again,’ and people would show up at your events and say ‘Ugh. A Republican. Not votin’ for him.’ ”
He’ll tell these stories, and then explain that he feels “dread” when he flies into Washington. “I look at that Capitol and I ask, why do I want to work there?” So why did he ever want to work there? “I think that the first time I went to Washington, I saw those columns and billowing flags, and thought: This is a place where the big problems get solved. That’s changed. That’s really changed.”
The best example of this—one of the reasons some Mourdock fans cite for their fandom—is the auto bailout of 2009. The government’s plan saved Chrysler from bankruptcy, but bankruptcy would have meant that pension funds, like Indiana’s, would have been paid back. The bailout changed that; Mourdock likes to say that it “tore up 150 years of bankruptcy law.” He sued, and he didn’t win.
Every conservative hero needs an origin story. Marco Rubio has the war against the stimulus. Mourdock has the auto bailout. Rubio’s story was instant Tea Party fanfiction; Mourdock’s story is complicated, a little boring. But the movement’s wonks love it. And any contrast can be spun into a Hero’s Journey. That’s what’s happening all over CPAC, among conference-goers who are obsessed over the presidential race. Conservatives need to know two things about candidates:
- Has the incumbent or front-runner done something left-wing?
- Can the challenger win?
That’s what’s happening in the Romney/Santorum/Gingrich fight, and every GOP challenger wants it to happen with him. When he gets back, Mourdock reports on the Hill meetings—“they sent their chiefs of staff, which often happens”—and beelines over to the “radio row,” a gallery of talkers with widely varied markets and ratings. He passes right by Joe Miller, the guy who ran against Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski in a 2010 primary, beat her, then lost when she ran as a write-in candidate.
“Indiana has a sore loser law,” says Mourdock. “You can’t even get your votes counted as a write-in if you lose. So—“ he points to where Miller had been standing— “that will not happen.”
Mullen points Mourdock over to the people who can help him, like radio host Michael Medved. Mourdock makes the pitch. The hosts ask him, “Where can people go to find out more about you?” Sometimes they say “folks.”
This wraps up quickly, and suddenly, Mourdock has very little to do. Mullen guides him to the section of CPAC’s main ballroom where big media reporters are sitting. She scans it, looking for somebody worth sharing the candidate with—somebody with a national audience, or a snarkless approach to conservatives.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “You can relax for a while. Do you want lunch?”
“If you’ve got more people to talk to,” he says, “that’s more important than eating.”
For now, this means we’re eating. Mourdock picks up Sun Chips and an overpriced turkey sandwich from one of the gouge-friendly food stands in the hotel.
“Runners eat turkey,” he explains. He’s a runner who’s completed nine marathons, the last one in Chicago last year, the one with a pregnant woman who gave birth after the race. “If I eat turkey, I can go for a 5-mile run afterwards. If I get steak, I can try that, but I’ll get sick.”
Why does he run? “It’s my time,” he says. He doesn’t get much of that anymore. “When I was a geologist, I will tell you: One thing I loved about it was the time I would spend, just hours, behind a microscope, thinking to myself.”
He traded that away 22 years ago for a career in politics. And he still sounds like he hates politics. “When people come up to me and ask for a photo,” he says, “I’ll stand there for it. But I wonder to myself: Why do they want this? Who admires a politician like this? I’ll tell you a story: When I thought about making this race, my chief of staff told me, ‘This is going to be like Marco Rubio’s race.’ ” Mourdock gags. “Who would want that attention?”
What doesn’t he hate about politics? “I do have an ability to stand in front of a room of people, and talk, and watch those faces as people change their minds.” His eyes get wet, turn red. “It’s something I never thought I’d do. At age 60, I find out, I’m pretty good at this. I can change minds.” He catches his voice. “I’m sorry about that. I get emotional when I think about this.”
This may be a pose, but a pose like that is hard to hold up over an entire day. The conservative columnist Joel Mowbray, wearing a yarmulke and a pin twinning the American and Israeli flags, finds Mourdock and chats him up about Lugar’s foreign policy atrocities. Mourdock responds politely. Mullen pulls over David Bossie, the president of Citizens United, who doesn’t seem to recognize Mourdock at first. And then: “We endorsed you!” He praises Mourdock and says he’ll do whatever it takes to elect him, with a voice about five times louder than the candidate’s. “We gave him $5,000 for the primary and $5,000 for the general election, because he’s going to win.”
Mourdock thanks him, then walks back to the radio row, past emptying exhibit booths—Google, the NRA, Americans for Prosperity, Students for Liberty, Newt 2012. He’s supposed to talk to the syndicated West Coast radio host Lars Larson about why Lugar is so beatable. “Lars had us on shortly after I announced,” says Mourdock. But another guest is running long. Mourdock’s staffers talk among themselves about a new breaking story in Indiana, about whether or not Lugar even lives there. Mourdock talks to David Leak, a man with a Forrest Gump buzzcut and dark glasses, who wants the future senator to learn about his economic plan.
“This absolutely ends socialism if it’s implemented,” he says.
“It’s interesting,” says Mourdock.
“Do you want the full package?” Mourdock is happy with just the flier. “Well, go to CashintheHand.org and you can read it.”
Mourdock gets his time with Lars Larson. Next up, last up, is the Dr. Gina Show. Among her posted accolades is one from “Dr. Milton Wolf, Barack Obama’s cousin,” who calls her “the best thing to happen to radio since the Beatles.” The candidate tells folks where they can go to help him out: RichardMourdock.com. And then he finds his way out of the hotel, where some friends will put him up for the night, saving yet more money.
“Good luck with the article,” he says. “I hope I was interesting. If it wasn’t, just make something up!”
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.