Reporting on Politics and Policy.

Aug. 8 2014 11:16 AM

The End of a Click-Friendly, Anti-Gay, Holocaust-Trolling Republican State Legislator

He made it into my story about Tennessee's primaries, and he was covered in my tweets about the results, but state Sen. Stacey Campfield deserves another moment. In 2012, Campfield became Internet-famous for the legislation quickly termed the "don't say gay bill." If successful—and it was introduced right after the GOP's surge of 2010 wins—it would have prevented any teaching of homosexuality to students younger than eighth grade. And just a few months ago, Campfield wrote a post that compared Obamacare signups to willfull participation in the Holocaust. "Democrats bragging about the number of mandatory sign ups for Obamacare is like Germans bragging about the number of manditory sign ups for 'train rides' for Jews in the 40s," he said. (Misspelling in the original, for once.)

The day before the election, I met Campfield's chief opponent Richard Briggs, most famous for being part of the medical team that worked on ABC's Bob Woodruff in Iraq. He was given a shout-out from the stage of Sen. Lamar Alexander's final rally in Knoxville. After the rally, he got a little catch-up time with Gov. Bill Haslam. From that and from a conversation with Briggs—where he stressed that "on the issues," he was not more liberal than Campfield—I got the impression that the establishment wanted Campfield out. Briggs was sore that Campfield had been attacking him for not taking a stance on "amnesty," as if that meant he was for it, as opposed to just aware that a state senator could not change immigration policy.

Briggs won by a landslide. He won 13,977 votes to Campfield's 5,824, with a third candidate taking 1,201 votes. Campfield was banished for, basically, being a local Todd Akin—a conservative who said dumb things and distracted voters from the need to beat Democrats.

He responded to the election result with a blog post consisting of four words—"Well, that was fun"—and a video of Frank Sinatra singing "My Way."

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Aug. 8 2014 9:36 AM

The Muted Response to New Iraq Strikes

Yesterday, hours before President Obama announced new airdrops and airstrikes in Iraq, retiring Rep. Frank Wolf dared him to do it. Wolf, elected in 1980, had been one of Congress' least partisan Iraq scolds. (He gets and deserves credit for making the Iraq Study Group happen, for whatever that was worth.)

"Much like President Clinton has deeply regretted his failure to stop the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, I believe you will come to regret your inaction for years to come," wrote Wolf in an open letter. "You will come to sincerely regret your failure to take action to stop the genocide in Iraq."

Wolf's letter trafficked well on conservative media, right up until Obama's announcement. At that point, trolling the president for being weak and golfing too much* no longer made sense. As of this morning, there's not even criticism, from congressional Republicans, of what Obama's doing.

The relevant Democrats in the Senate and House are on board; there has not yet been any criticism from the libertarian wing of the GOP, like from the newly renominated Rep. Justin Amash. Maybe that's coming, as Republican presidential candidates gather in Iowa (yes, already) today and over the weekend. But so far the only outrage and snark about a new military strike on the 50th anniversary week of the Gulf of Tonkin is limited to Twitter. Conservatives had been invested in mocking Obama's nonresponse too recently.

*I agree that this is a travesty, largely because golf is boring.

Aug. 8 2014 8:45 AM

The Tea Party’s Close Call in Tennessee

It was closer than expected, and that in itself was a win. Yes, sure, fine—in my story about the final days of the final credible Tea Party challenge of an incumbent Republican senator, you'll find several allies of state Rep. Joe Carr arguing that there's no trophy for second place.

But Carr, who raised roughly $1 for every $6 raised by Sen. Lamar Alexander, held the senator under 50 percent of the vote. Carr won middle Tennessee, including Davidson County (Nashville) and the surrounding, reddening suburbs. (These are the areas where Republicans surged in 2010, unseating or spooking into retirement two Blue Dog Democrats.) In his own Rutherford County, Carr won by a nearly 2-1 margin.* Alexander simply outperformed him in most rural areas and in Tennessee's other urban hubs—Memphis, Knoxville, Chattanooga. In just the counties around those cities, Alexander made up half of his eventual margin over Carr. 

Why did the race close up? One reason was wan turnout. On the trail, Alexander and Gov. Bill Haslam speculated that this year would see the highest GOP turnout in history. It just didn't happen. Right now it looks like 664,393 Republicans cast ballots, which is up from the 2012 Republican presidential primary but down from the 720,804 votes cast when Haslam won his 2010 gubernatorial primary. The combination could have been toxic: Thin turnout, with the most energy generated by challenges in middle Tennessee, and an overall sentiment of voter disappointment in/dread of Washington.

Still, Alexander won. And in another way that seemed too glib for my story (but is, of course, fine for a blog), it seemed fitting that the Tea Party ran aground in Tennessee. Alexander had his election party in Nashville, where four years ago the only National Tea Party Convention was held, with roughly one reporter for every four attendees. Carr conceded in Murfreesboro, which until recently was most famous for the 2009 protests of a planned Islamic Center—a "mega-mosque."

*Correction, Aug. 8, 2014: This post originally misidentified Rutherford County, Tennessee, as Murfreesboro County.

Aug. 7 2014 8:18 PM

(Sort of) Live From Tennessee

MURFREESBORO, Tenn.—It's every boy's dream—a hardware failure right before a deadline. The wireless gear I typically use on the road broke today, and a helpful Verizon franchise replaced it with gear that also failed to work (but for a different reason). There will be a story tonight about this state's Tea Party vs. Establishment showdown, but less than the usual amount blogging tonight and tomorrow.

All that said: Results in Tennessee will be posted here. The races to watch:

- The Senate race among Lamar Alexander, Joe Carr, and some also-rans. There's been next to no polling of this race, which pitted one of the more plugged-in "establishment" senators (that is to say, not someone who had to be pushed to run again, like Thad Cochran) against one of the more adept Tea Party challengers, with a defined issue—iimmigration.

- The 2nd Congressional District, held by Rep. Jimmy Duncan, is the scene of a pretty low-key Tea Party challenge. Duncan's one of the most reliably right-wing members of the House; he drew an opponent because of an anti-incumbent backlash that no one can stave off.

- The 3rd Congressional District, held now by Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, is being sought by Weston Wamp, the 27-year-old son of former Rep. Zach Wamp. Fleischmann produced a gleefully dishonest radio ad in which half of a Wamp quote ("You won't hear me criticize the president ... ") was played and replayed to make him sound like an Obama-lover.

- The 4th Congressional District is held by Rep. Scott DesJarlais, a class-of-2012-er who managed to keep a lid on the news that he encouraged an ex-wife's abortions until right before election 2012. He won that race anyway—thanks, gerrymandering!—but is being challenged by state Sen. Jim Tracy, and may survive because of scattered voting for other people who piled in.

- The 7th state Senate district race between Stacey Campfield and Richard Briggs. Campfield is one of the lawmakers most likely to appear in a Huffington Post headline. (Google "don't say gay bill" if you need a refresher.) Briggs is the doctor the establishment wants to take the seat.

Aug. 7 2014 5:08 PM

Montana’s Plagiarist Senator Will Quit His Race

In one way, Jonathan Martin's story about the plagiarized Army War College thesis of Montana Sen. John Walsh broke at just the right time. The New York Times reporter revealed Walsh's plagiarism on July 23. That was after Walsh won a primary, dispatching two opponents who ran to his left, but before Aug. 11, when the state party could replace any candidate who left a race.

And that was what Walsh eventually did. Today he quit a race that he'd always been expected to lose—one that he'd started to gain a little ground in, before his past exploded in his face—after informing his campaign staff. "I am ending my campaign so that I can focus on fulfilling the responsibility entrusted to me as your U.S. senator," he said in a statement. "I am proud that with your support, we held our opponent (Daines) accountable for his hurtful record to privatize Medicare to deny women the freedom to make their own health decisions and to sell off our public lands." Yes, even in defeat, he stayed with the DSCC's preferred message.

Montana Democrats now have a chance to assemble, and for less than 200 delegates to pick a new candidate. Missouri Republicans tried to pull something like this off in 2012, when Rep. Todd Akin blurted "legitimate rape" with some time left for the party to pick a new candidate. The difference: In 2012, Republicans figured (not incorrectly) that any warm body with an "R" next to it on the ballot could beat Claire McCaskill. Montana Democrats are trying to hold an open seat in a state that has not voted Democratic for president since 1992. They have an unusually good record of winning Senate races in the state, but not under these red-alert conditions.

Aug. 7 2014 2:43 PM

How Republicans Learned to Love Uber

Three months ago the young Republican technologist Derek Khanna wrote a here-try-this cover story for the American Conservative. In "The Party of Innovation," he argued that the GOP, if it could get over itself, was perfectly positioned to be the party of liberation and tech. One example among many:

Uber provides a clear example of state law run amok. This service allows users to request a town car, SUV, or taxi by using a smartphone app. Uber is an innovation that makes the city traveling experience more enjoyable and more efficient, and it helps enterprising drivers who get to keep more of the profit than with conventional taxi fleets. It’s a clear win for all parties. But Uber needs help—specifically, it needs to be left alone.

Two months later, Illinois' Republican candidate for governor Bruce Rauner—who has a fantastic chance of winning this year, thanks to the unpopularity of accidental Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn*—put out a statement in defense of the company, squaring himself against any threat by labor unions to shut it down or bar it. (This put him on the same team as Chicago's unpopular mayor, Rahm Emanuel.) Uber, said Rauner, is an "innovative, growing company that provides ride-share services to millions of people across the country and wants to create 425 more jobs right here in Illinois."

Rauner was doing so well with the message that RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, a Wisconsinite who can hardly restrain himself from deriding Illinois' liberals, placed an op-ed about Uber in the Chicago Tribune.

Uber has thrived, in part because the public has spoken out in support of it But why should any company have to fight the government tooth-and-nail just to be given a chance to compete?
The issue is larger than Uber. How many companies, how many products, how many innovations have died prematurely because the government overreached and interfered in the free market? Government has a role to play, but that role isn't to protect the status quo. It should be consumers, not government bureaucrats or legislators, who decide what companies get their business.

We have a genuine trend on our hands, and Byron Tau and Kevin Robillard have more about it. The trend started with technologists who have no leadership role in the party.

*Quinn became governor in 2010, upon the disgracing and resignation of Gov. Rod Blagojevich; he won re-election that year in part because a pawn shop tycoon ran as a third party candidate.

Aug. 7 2014 11:38 AM

The GOP Whip's Lobbyist Helper Also Hates the Tea Party's "Racists" and "Hucksters"

Anna Palmer and Jake Sherman had a fascinating scoop this week about how the new House GOP whip, Rep. Steve Scalise, had lobbyist John Feehery "sit in on" interviews for job candidates. Feehery, whose biography offers us a classic tale of Washington momentum—from Denny Hastert to lucrative lobbying and punditry—did not deny the report. "I've never advocated for or brought client issues before the office," he explained. And the story did not say that he did, only that "many of his clients have issues that can be affected by the House Republican leadership."

That might not be what irritates conservatives. Scalise, whose victory in the whip race was seen as a win for the party's right, is relying on one of the many establishment figures who loathes the Tea Party. In a January 2013 blog post, under the evocative title "The Tea Party Must Be Crushed," Feehery burst forth with conventional wisdom about how the populist movement was ruining things for Republicans.

It is time to get rid of the Tea Party. They are an embarrassment. Worse, they are collaborating with Democrats to bring down Republicans and make it easier for Democrats to win general elections. ... The Tea Party has been a fifth column within the Republican Party, blowing up bridges, sabotaging supply lines, creating false controversies, wasting valuable party resources, and generally making it easier for Senate Democrats and Barack Obama to stay in power.

Feehery went on, clarifying that he was angry with Tea Party groups that nominated loser candidates or challenged possible winners, and enriched themselves in the process. "When the Tea Party started, it was a national movement of good people who were worried about the future of the country," he wrote. "But today’s Tea Party has morphed into something far different. It has become a collection of wing-nuts, racists, hucksters, extremists, con-men and front-men, who collaborate with Hollywood and left-wing organizations to plot the demise of Republicans in good standing."

It wasn't a one-off blog post. Feehery has written lots of stuff like this; it's just that "GOP establishment figure criticizes Tea Party" is not such a unique story that people paid much attention. In one post he described the origins and figures of the GOP's civil war, branding Mark Levin a "dark, malevolent" figure of talk radio, and reporting that the Chamber of Commerce "has finally had enough of the Tea party non-sense." In another, he branded FreedomWorks a "giant scam."

Nothing unusual here. Lots of D.C. Republicans feel like Feehery. But few of them get to offer advice on whom the House GOP leadership should hire.

Aug. 7 2014 9:52 AM

The Plagiarism Dead-Enders

Perhaps the strangest part of the New York Times' story on Rick Perlstein's "plagiarism" accusers was the reference to a review that had yet to be published. Alexandra Alter had gotten a gander at Sam Tanenhaus' upcoming review of Perlstein's book, The Invisible Bridge. "Lamenting the lack of primary sources," reported Alter, "he wrote that Mr. Perlstein had 'adopted the methodology of the web aggregator.' "

It was a serious accusation, but now that Tanenhaus' review is up, there's very little to it. Tanenhaus makes much of how Perlstein has referred to a "whackadoodle far-right," which is from a 2012 article, not the book; anyway, it's curious that the author of 2009's instantly irrelevant The Death of Conservatism would huff at the idea of bad tendencies on the right. In the essay that inspired Tanenhaus' book, he identified the mid-1970s as the death of "mature conservatism" and the moment when right-wingers became "inverse Marxists" and "revanchists." How is this different than Perlstein's argument? Perlstein just lacks Tanenhaus' pompous fatalism about his subject. 

So the "web aggregator" line looks even worse in the full review.

His first book drew on more than a dozen archival collections. He has since adopted the methodology of the Web aggregator: his preferred sources are digitally accessed news clippings and TV shows. Some might find this intellectually lazy, but Perlstein proudly Googles in the name of grass-roots activism. 

Reading that, you might assume that Perlstein abandoned the archives to write this book. But Perlstein's online notes refer to findings from Michael Deaver's papers at Stanford, Ronald Reagan's papers at his presidential library, Richard Nixon's papers at his library, and half a dozen other primary source archives. Perlstein does use more online sources than he did in his 2001 book. Has anything happened since 2001? Have more sources been placed online? Why, yes, they have.* And the problem with Perlstein consulting those sources is ... what, exactly? There's some snobbery here about using sources that can be linked to, but no argument that the sources are illegitimate. 

Paul Bedard, the Washington Examiner's replacement-level gossip columnist, reports that Craig Shirley will pursue a lawsuit against Simon & Schuster. As an aside, Bedard adds that "the Atlantic magazine said Perlstein has shown in his latest political history that he is less a researcher-historian than a simple 'web aggregator' who collects publicly available information and stitches it into a book." That's an amusing case of projection from an aggregator who bases stories on press releases in both blog and email form. The standards for accusations in court and accusations on the Internet are quite different, as some people are about to discover.

*This is half-anecdote and half-self-promotion, but my own book about progressive rock has been much, much easier to report because fans and archivists have placed so many out-of-print sources on the Internet.

Aug. 7 2014 8:51 AM

“It’s a Very Unintelligent Way to Vote”

NASHVILLE—It's primary election day here, and the expectation is that "the Tea Party" will lose its last big contest of 2014. State Rep. Joe Carr, one of the capital's reliable conservatives and (as he reminds reporters) the sponsor of tough anti-illegal-immigration bills, is polling behind Sen. Lamar Alexander. The two-term senator, who's been winning elections in Tennessee since the Carter presidency, simply hasn't made the blunders of Eric Cantor or Pat Roberts or Thad Cochran. Carr, who is a more adept politician than Cantor's vanquisher or the guy who gave Roberts a scare, is not generating the same excitement as those candidates. When I trailed Carr yesterday, he had no major rallies, just a few drop-ins to restaurants (one where he picked up the bill for supporters). Come tonight, and come Friday, editors will hit "publish" on the Tea Party obits.

Should they? Ed Kilgore does a nice job #slatepitching the election's storylines.

[Tuesday]’s winner Pat Roberts, who already sported lifetime ratings of 86 percent from both the American Conservative Union and Americans for Prosperity, went far out of his way to propitiate the ideological gods of movement conservatism as he fought for reelection. He voted against an appropriations measure that included a project he had long sought for his alma mater, Kansas State University, and opposed a UN Treaty banning discrimination against people with disabilities over the objections of his revered Kansas Senate predecessors Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum.

I'd add that many incumbents, even as they've won, have put up weak numbers that look nothing like their margins from the past. More Republican incumbents have won renomination with 60 percent of the vote, or less, than I think any time in history. (I'm happy for a commenter to corect me, but I looked at the numbers for the past few decades.) Here are the Tea Party conquerers of 2014. Their victory totals are followed, in parentheses, by their totals from their previous elections (2008 for senators, 2012 for House members).

Mitch McConnell: 60.2 percent (86.1 percent)

Renee Ellmers: 58.7 percent (56 percent)

Lindsey Graham: 56.4 percent (66.8 percent)

Thad Cochran: 51 percent (100 percent)

Pat Roberts: 48 percent (100 percent)

Those are the people that we describe as establishment winners, people who held off the Tea Party thanks to the aggressive work of business groups and party committees. In every case except Ellmers' (a below-the-radar challenge that presaged Cantor's loss), you saw involvement by outfits that did not exist or did not have the same clout in the last elections—the Senate Conservatives Fund, Tea Party Patriots, FreedomWorks, the Club for Growth. In David Brat's case, it didn't take any outside involvement for one candidate to make a race against, then humiliate, an incumbent.

And what worries the incumbents is that they don't know when this will stop. Yesterday, at Alexander's final rally in Knoxville, I caught up with Rep. Jimmy Duncan, a libertarian-leaning member first elected in 1988. He replaced his father, John Duncan, who held the seat for the 24 years previous. And despite almost never voting the leadership's way, he had drawn a primary challenger.

"You've got a lot of people who think if you've been there longer than two years, you're bad," said Duncan. "They should look at a person's voting record and the work they've been doing for the people of the state. It's a very unintelligent way to vote, I can tell you that."

Aug. 6 2014 4:30 PM

I Had the Privilege of Spending an Hour With an Inner City Black Man

Mark Walker is the Republican nominee for the North Carolina congressional seat being vacated by Rep. Howard Coble. He could don a tie-dyed kilt and a frappe-stained tank top for the rest of the campaign and still glide into the House of Representatives. But the oppo machine still churns in his race, and it has discovered this 16-month-old Facebook note. (Arrow annotation points to the part that my source thought was noteworthy.)

Screen Shot 2014-08-06 at 3.54.13 PM

Now: Is this offensive? My colleague Boer Deng points out that "Amy Chua makes a similar argument in the most recent book about why some groups have 'higher success' in this country than others, that blacks in America have been constantly taught that their culture is not valued and so they stop valuing it." Chua's book arrived only in February 2014, but it's not like the argument is unique to her and her husband/co-author. It's been a Republican doctrine for far longer—it's controversial even when black Republicans, like former Rep. Allen West, express it. A white Republican can't help but sound gormless when he goes there. This is among the reasons that Ben Carson's latest political tome (his second) is chasing Hillary Clinton's in total sales, only 2,000 copies behind as of this week.

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