Campaign Crawlers

Do Ordinary Americans Still Matter?

GOP insiders don't seem to get the populist message.

By 3.15.10

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Adam Light called last week to tell me about his campaign for Congress in Virginia's 9th District. To say that Light's candidacy is a long shot is to understate the tremendous odds against him.

Never mind the improbability of a political newcomer unseating an entrenched Democratic incumbent, Rep. Rick Boucher. In order to get that shot at Boucher -- who has riled up southwest Virginia's coal country by supporting the Waxman-Markey energy tax -- Light must first convince voters in the 9th District to support him for the GOP nomination over Morgan Griffith, majority leader in the state's House of Delegates.

"He's a good man and a good candidate," Light says of Griffith, but notes that Democrats are already trying to stick the "carpetbagger" label on the Republican front-runner, whose home near Salem sits just outside the 9th District boundary. Of course, district lines shift every 10 years and there is no law requiring congressmen to live in the districts they represent, but a spokesman for the state Democratic Party tipped the Boucher re-election strategy last month by offering to send Griffith a map to help him find his way around the 9th District.

Could such tactics stop Griffith from defeating Boucher even when so many observers predict a Republican surge this November? A partner in a Tazewell County land-surveying firm who calls himself a "true Jeffersonian republican," Light says he has often heard the "carpetbagger" charge against Griffith from local voters. "A lot of people are concerned that he doesn't live in the district."

Despite such concerns, the National Republican Congressional Committee has designated Griffith an "on the radar" candidate. No one could blame grassroots conservatives, however, for being skeptical of the NRCC's ability to pick winners, given their disastrous decision to support Dede Scozzafava in upstate New York's 23rd District last fall. After the NRCC and other national Republican organizations pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into Scozzafava's hopeless campaign, she notoriously repaid them by endorsing Democrat Bill Owens.

Morgan Griffith is obviously no backstabbing RINO (Republican In Name Only), but the Scozzafava bungle is merely one example of inept meddling by the GOP establishment that infuriates rank-and-file Republicans. The Florida Senate campaign, where John Cornyn and the National Republican Senatorial Committee tried to put the fix in for Charlie Crist 15 months ahead of the GOP primary, continues to inspire grassroots complaints that Republican insiders are "clueless," "tone-deaf" and "incompetent," as well as some other descriptions not suitable for a family-friendly publication.

Similar complaints were heard last week in Alabama's 5th District, when House Minority Leader John Boehner appeared at a fundraiser for Democrat-turned-Republican Rep. Parker Griffith. "We are sending a message to the national Republican establishment: stay out of our primary," Christie Carden, founder of the Huntsville Tea Party, declared in announcing a protest against Boehner's favoritism toward the incumbent in a hotly contested Republican primary.

"It's Another 'Dede Moment' for the GOP -- Choose Sides Carefully!" proclaimed one sign displayed at last week's Huntsville protest, and the possibility of repeating the Scozzafava catastrophe is not the only argument against Republican insiders attempting to exercise top-down control over the party. A perception that the GOP establishment routinely rigs primaries in favor of the well-financed and well-connected is widespread among grassroots conservatives. Disillusioned by the political equivalent of insider trading, some idealistic Republicans are tempted to walk away from active participation in GOP politics, which would leave the party infrastructure even more controlled by selfish cynics and professional operatives.

One man who doesn't want to see that happen is Doug Hoffman, the "Ordinary American" candidate whose third-party campaign last year in New York's 23rd District became a national crusade for conservatives fed up with Washington, including the Beltway GOP. "The legacy of my [2009] campaign is that many Americans who had never been involved before saw that they could get involved and make a difference," Hoffman told me in a telephone interview last week, after announcing his candidacy for the Republican nomination in this year's mid-term election.

Strange as it may seem, some Republicans still haven't gotten the message. There are rumors in New York that the national GOP establishment is trying to recruit Will Barclay to run against Hoffman. Scion of a wealthy family, Barclay is a state assemblyman whose father was appointed ambassador to El Salvador by President Bush. The chief argument for the younger Barclay's candidacy, as one Hoffman-supporting conservative told me last week, can be summarized in three words: "Money, money, money."

Can such an argument prevail in a year when Republicans hope to capture the populist energy of the Tea Party movement? Although Democratic attack ads last year branded Hoffman a millionaire indifferent to working-class interests, he grew up desperately poor and his rags-to-riches success story was one of the major selling points of his underdog campaign. If the Republican establishment shoves Hoffman aside in favor of Barclay, it would do more than reinforce the Democrats' traditional class-warfare message that the GOP is the "party of the rich." It would also send a message to the party's conservative rank-and-file that their loyalty to Republicans is strictly a one-way street, never to be respected in any instance where grassroots preferences conflict with the political ambitions of party insiders.

All over the country, ordinary Americans inspired by Hoffman's example are turning Republican primaries into crowded contests, the most crowded of which is probably South Carolina's 1st District, where 13 candidates are reportedly seeking the GOP congressional nomination.

In Virginia's 9th District, meanwhile, Adam Light is one of at least three underdog candidates -- along with retired Army officer David Moore and computer engineer Jessee Ring -- contending with Morgan Griffith for the Republican nomination. Whatever the odds against them, these candidates aim to fulfill the aim declared by Thomas Jefferson in a quote featured on Light's campaign website, of "giving to every citizen, personally, a part in the administration of the public affairs."

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About the Author

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party (Nelson Current). He blogs at The Other McCain.