The decline of Virginia’s once-dominant Republican Party is a case study in how a party’s waning electoral appeal is often accompanied by a descent into madness. Rather than view the Virginia GOP’s experience as a cautionary tale, though, it seems state-level Republican Parties across the country see it as a model worthy of emulation.
Virginia Republicans had every reason to believe that Barack Obama’s 2008 victory in this historically red state was a fluke. It was the closest presidential contest in the state since 1976 and the first time a Democratic candidate had won in Old Dominion since LBJ’s landslide win in 1964. The following year, amid the rise of the Tea Party, Republicans retook the governor’s mansion and maintained a prohibitive block of reliable districts at the state legislative level. But in the decade that followed, Republicans became less and less appealing to the state’s voters. And as the GOP declined in relevance, its members became increasingly unhinged.
As National Review’s Alexandra DeSanctis ably chronicled, devolution culminated in the 2018 resignation of GOP chairman John Whitbeck, after three years of service to the party, following insurgent politician Corey Stewart’s GOP nomination for U.S. Senate. Stewart’s agenda involved municipal police forcing individuals to prove their citizenship at routine traffic stops, and he presented himself as the candidate for “forgotten white voters.” He called Paul Nehlen, an anti-Semitic fringe figure who lost a primary campaign against Paul Ryan, one of his “personal heroes.” Stewart also called his conventionally Republican critics “cuckservatives” and maintained close ties with one of the organizers of the infamous “Unite the Right” rally that descended on Charlottesville in 2017.
For every Trumpy Virginian voter energized by Stewart, two more voters were repulsed. In the end, he lost by a resounding 16 points. But the Virginia GOP has not learned its lesson. In the interim, Rep. Denver Riggleman was ousted at a party convention—not a primary election—because he officiated a gay wedding ceremony. And the party’s leading frontrunner for the gubernatorial nomination this year, a woman who describes herself as “Trump in heels,” has drawn rebukes from the state’s minority Republican senate conference for defending the “white history” represented by Confederate statuary and attacking the “spineless eunuchs” within the GOP’s so-called establishment.
Republican voters with an interest in winning elections might look at this example and recoil in horror. That’s not what happened.
In Arizona, the GOP has avoided any introspection following the loss of its two U.S. Senate seats to Democrats over as many electoral cycles by lashing out at its own members. The party, which is led by Kelli Ward, a two-time failure as a statewide candidate for elected office, opted to censure many of its more successful members in January. Jeff Flake, the last Republican to win a statewide race for federal office in Arizona, was admonished for his opposition to Trump. The party censured the wife of the late John McCain for a similar display of heterodoxy. It even censured the sitting Republican governor, Doug Ducey, over the famously libertarian-leaning figure’s adoption of “dictatorial powers” to combat COVID-19.
The Arizona GOP has abandoned even a coherent populism in favor of marketing itself as an outlet for Donald Trump cultism, and it is not alone in this.
Mere hours after Rep. Bill Cassidy, who was unimpressed by the flaccid arguments of Trump’s attorneys, voted with six of his Republican colleagues to deem impeachment proceedings in the Senate constitutional, he was reflexively condemned by his state’s party. “The Republican Party of Louisiana is profoundly disappointed by Senator Bill Cassidy’s vote,” the Louisiana GOP’s statement read. By contrast, Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy was praised for being “steadfast in his opposition to the fake impeachment trial.”
This rebuke falls short of censure, but that could be forthcoming. After all, Cassidy wouldn’t be the first.
The moribund Illinois GOP voted overwhelmingly to censure one of the state’s few Republican congressmen, Rep. Adam Kinzinger, for behaving in ways that are “contrary to the values” of the GOP. You have to admire the honesty of a resolution that defines blind loyalty to Trump as a “value.” Likewise, the Republican Party of Wyoming voted to censure the third-ranking member of the House GOP minority, Rep. Liz Cheney, for voting with ten other Republicans and the majority Democratic Party in the House to impeach the former president. Impeachment is such an incendiary issue for that state’s GOP that the state party chair, Frank Eathorne, raised the possibility of seceding from the Union in protest.
Indeed, disunion is in the air. Former Rep. Allen West, Chairman of the Republican Party of Texas, has endorsed legislation that would present a vote to the state’s citizens on whether to withdraw from the Union. This maneuver follows Texas Attorney General, Ken Paxton’s claim that the vandals who invaded the Capitol were not Trump supporters but Antifa activists. The fantasy that this mob was actually an elaborate psychological-warfare operation is quite popular among state-level Republican Parties.
Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey echoed these sentiments in a private conversation published on YouTube, in which he alleged that the Capitol siege was a “hoax” that “was all staged.” He went so far as to accuse Sen. Mitch McConnell of orchestrating the event because “they wanted to have a mess.” That might sound crazy to you, but it’s not crazy enough for the Michigan GOP. Shirkey was himself recently censured by his party for backing a ban on bringing firearms into the state’s Capitol building.
In Oregon, where the GOP has been rendered an afterthought, the party voted in favor of the hoax narrative in a January 19 resolution calling the Capitol siege “a ‘false flag’ operation designed to discredit President Trump, his supporters, and all conservative Republicans.” It was, the state GOP averred, an operation designed “to advance the Democrat goal of seizing total power, in a frightening parallel to the February 1933 burning of the German Reichstag.” In what has become a familiar dynamic, the state’s minority caucus in the Oregon House of Representatives condemned the unproductive resolution. The caucus is focused on winning elections, but the party has other designs.
Political parties are vehicles for the acquisition of political power at the ballot box. That is what they are built for. The GOP’s electoral failures should produce some soul searching. At the very least, we should see the voters who support Republican policies demand better representation from their respective parties. But we haven’t seen that. Maybe Republican voters aren’t all that interested in winning elections anymore. If so, state parties are delivering.