On Sunday afternoon, standing outside the Virginia GOP’s headquarters in vote-rich Fairfax County, Bishop E.W. Jackson finally became a real politician. He’d just won his party’s nomination for lieutenant governor. Democrats and the press, dazzled by their luck, had just started digging into Jackson’s YouTube record of incendiary quotes. Jackson asked his fellow Republicans to join him in a belly laugh.
“I was just quoted in the Huffington Post today, because the long knives have already come out,” said Jackson. The crowd took its cue, and booed. “They quoted me, and they said, just listen to what he said last night! ‘We've got to get the government off our backs, off our businesses, out of our families, out of our way.’ And they thought that was terrible. We think it's great!”
This was true, in the most misleading way possible. The Huffington Post had just run an SEO-optimized piece about Jackson, and its aggregation machine had grabbed that generic Tea Party quote from Jackson’s Saturday speech at the Virginia GOP convention. That quote was filler. The story had led with a 2012 video of Jackson calling for blacks to bolt the “Democrat Party,” because “Planned Parenthood has been far more lethal to black lives than the KKK ever was,” and continued with a 2010 Jackson essay exposing how Barack Obama “sees the world and Israel from a Muslim perspective.”
Jackson was spinning those Republicans in Fairfax. He’d just become this year’s Michele Bachmann, this year’s Christine O’Donnell, a goateed content mill for liberal blogs and oppo researchers. It’s an off year, and Virginia’s one of only two states electing a new state government in 2013, so, yes, the media’s going to pay attention to the YouTube preacher.
Anyone who doesn’t currently live and vote in Virginia should have two small questions. 1) How did Jackson get this nomination? 2) What do I care who the lieutenant governor of Virginia is?
So let’s go in order. Jackson’s victory was preordained 11 months ago, when the state GOP announced it would hold a convention, not a primary, to pick its next candidate. Virginia voters don’t register by party; it’s hard, but doable, for a moderate to win a primary by appealing beyond the base. Conventions, in Virginia and anywhere else, empower the activists who care enough about their party to spend a weekend in an air conditioned arena waving Gadsden flags and poster board campaign swag.
No moderate can win the nomination at a Virginia convention. The party’s decision meant that Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the hero behind the Obamacare and climate change lawsuits, would be the party’s candidate for governor. Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, an occasionally-moderate Republican who’d spent two terms in the low-profile job, briefly flirted with a third party bid, then thought better of it and just kept sniping at Cuccinelli.
Meanwhile, waiting to take advantage of all this was E.W. Jackson. The bishop of Exodus Faith Ministries fit an archetype that’s done spectacularly well in the Obama era—the well-credentialed black Republican with the golden voice. Jackson had a law degree from Harvard, a series of radio shows, and a deep moral disquiet with his father’s political party. “I had a crisis of conscience in the late 1970s,” he would write in 2012. “Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank was pushing the homosexual agenda. How could I, as a Christian, be committed to a party led by Mr. Frank? In the end, I could not. My desire to be in a right relationship with God and my faith was greater than my desire to be approved by my father, my family, or the black community.”
Starting in 2009, Jackson was getting noticed by TV bookers and Tea Partiers for being quick to condemn social liberalism or anything that whiffed of “race-baiting.” He read Bible verses outside the Department of Justice “to test the limits of the expanded federal hate crimes law”—the DOJ passed the test and didn’t arrest him. He’d issue press releases on the letterhead of his STAND America PAC (it never raised more than five figures) and ask why the Obama administration had sued Arizona over its 2010 immigration law but didn’t prosecute two members of the New Black Panther Party who’d stood outside a (mostly black, heavily Democratic) Philadelphia polling place. “This administration,” he said, “has called the people of Arizona racists. Since they are willing to throw that accusation around, they ought to also answer for their own apparent anti-white racial bias.”
In Virginia, all of this made Jackson a star. He’d take the stage at Tea Party rallies to condemn the Obama administration and—this was always popular—shame anyone who called the Tea Party “racist.” In 2011, after the movement had probably crested, Jackson ran for U.S. Senate. To a novice, who might judge a candidate on criteria like “money raised” and “votes won,” the campaign was disastrous. Four candidates fought for the nomination. Jackson ran fourth, with less than 5 percent of the vote. That was after running a Web video in which a Tea Party activist in Revolutionary garb handed him a red, white, and blue ax, which Jackson used to chop watermelons symbolizing “unemployment” and “Obamacare.”
You might watch that and think you see a candidate embarrassing himself, but that wasn’t what Jackson was doing. His audience was conservatives. They adored him, because who else could get away with this stuff? “Liberalism and their ideas,” Jackson wrote, “have done more to kill black folks whom they claim so much to love than the Ku Klux Klan, lynching, and slavery and Jim Crow ever did.” He’d repeat the sentiment at Republican dinners, before or after a soliloquy on the president’s false Christianity or phony patriotism. “We can send him back to Chicago or Hawaii or Indonesia or wherever he’s comfortable,” said Jackson at a February 2012 GOP dinner, “but he’s leaving the White House!”
Democrats have hours upon hours of this material to play with, and they’ll try to hot-glue the best stuff to Cuccinelli himself. Democrats win in Virginia, in off-years, when they convince suburbanites that the GOP has lost its mind. They will point out that the lieutenant governor, rather unusually, has real clout in Virginia at the moment. The state Senate is evenly split between the parties, and the state’s second-highest ranking official gets to break the ties. Bolling provided key votes on a tax-hiking transportation plan and a voter ID bill. Jackson repeatedly told Republican activists why Bolling was wrong; if you’d have put him in the chair, he’d have sided with hardcore conservatives.
A month ago, before the party took him seriously, Jackson gave a long interview to an Internet radio host named Anna Yeisley, and told her that the lieutenant governor’s office would offer him even more than the vote. He’d approach it as a “platform to move this commonwealth into a conservative, constitutional direction when the legislature is not in session.”
Before the Virginia GOP nominated Jackson, its delegates heard from Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. The term-limited governor, a potential 2016 candidate, had spent the early part of the year traveling to state party events and giving a speech about the lessons of its last defeat. The chief lesson: Enough with the gaffes, already.
“We must stop being the stupid party,” said Jindal in the stump speech. “It’s time for a new Republican party that talks like adults. It’s time for us to articulate our plans and visions for America in real terms. We had a number of Republicans damage the brand this year with offensive and bizarre comments. We’ve had enough of that.”
After a while, Jindal dropped that line. He didn’t recycle it in Virginia. Why would he? What were the odds that his party would keep re-living that screw-up?