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Magazine

Stopping the New Todd Akins

Republicans can see the next wave of clamorous extremists coming. Now they have to neutralize them.

Living on the edge: Broun(Bill Clark/Getty Images)

photo of Alex  Roarty
November 18, 2013

MARIETTA, Ga.—The most dangerous man in Republican politics also has one of its loudest voices. Paul Broun had walked into the middle of the chandelier-adorned ballroom, forgoing the microphone used by other candidates who spoke on this Saturday morning. The congressman was addressing the Georgia Federation of Republican Women at a luxury hotel an hour north of Atlanta, the kind of gathering serious candidates for the Peach State's open Senate seat must attend.

And Broun is a serious candidate—to the deep anxiety of nearly every Republican leader from Atlanta to Washington. His voice boomed as he delivered his four-minute stump speech, arms raised as he swiveled side-to-side to address an audience of mostly older women. The deeply religious politician was not unlike a preacher addressing his congregation.

"There's four questions I ask about all legislation," bellowed Broun, dressed in a tie-less black suit and, at 67, still possessing a full head of white hair. His checklist: Does the country need it; can the country afford it; does it square with the Constitution's original intent?

 

And there is one more thing: "Does it fit with the Judeo-Christian biblical principles that the nation was founded upon?"

Broun didn't elaborate. But he didn't have to. For many Republicans, it's all the reminder they need about why he can't be the party's nominee. Last year, Broun called the Big Bang theory and evolution "lies from the pit of hell." The remarks, caught on videotape during a speech at a local church, have defined him as one of Congress's most controversial lawmakers. And they were hardly the only incendiary comment from a man who once compared President Obama to Adolf Hitler, before Obama even took office. (He later apologized.)

On this October morning, Broun kept his speech anodyne, vowing to ease the country's debt burden and make life better for future generations.

But establishment Republicans—or whatever you want to call the collection of strategists, donors, and leaders who value retaking the Senate above all else—aren't forgetting what lies beneath. Because they know two things about Georgia's Senate race: Paul Broun can win the party's nomination, and if he does, the GOP will be saddled with its next Todd Akin.

Everybody remembers Akin, most of all Republicans running campaigns last year. The congressman's gasp-inducing suggestion that women, despite all scientific evidence to the contrary, could prevent themselves from becoming pregnant after rape, cost the party a winnable Senate seat in a red state. But the damage reverberated far beyond Missouri—his comments became a cinder block tied to the ankles of Republican candidates across the country.

The party can't bear a repeat, not while facing its last best shot at taking the Senate  from Democrats. And not while it tries to rehabilitate its image before the 2016 presidential election, a contest Republicans are desperate to win. So GOP leaders are vowing to step in. And they're not only training their sights on Georgia. Just as Akin wasn't the only ham-handed GOP nominee —think Richard Mourdock in Indiana and Christine O'Donnell in Delaware—Republicans nationwide are on a search-and-destroy mission for candidates they fear could embarrass the party.

Party operatives describe the looming battle as an effort that will look less like an all-out assault and more like a series of stealthy precision strikes, because everyone involved acknowledges that any attempt to meddle in a GOP primary is fraught with risk. Rank-and-file conservatives, the kind who pick primary winners, don't like being told what to do.

But no matter what that strategy looks like, the ensuing intraparty showdowns will determine more than the shape of next year's midterm elections. Republicans will remember 2014 as either the moment GOP elders regained control of a party that had slipped from their grasp, or the one that saw hard-liners finish a coup six years in the making. When the results come in, everyone will know who's running the Republican Party.

MOST WANTED LIST

Beyond Broun, the lineup of troublemakers stalking Senate races is a mix of new and familiar names. In Alaska, 2010 Republican nominee Joe Miller is back for another go-round in a three-man race. Other than losing to Sen. Lisa Murkowski's write-in effort, his campaign was most memorable for having handcuffed a local reporter. Another 2010 retread, former Colorado GOP nominee Ken Buck, once compared homosexuality to alcoholism.

Bob Vander Plaats wasn't a Senate contender in 2010, but he is well-known to anyone familiar with Iowa politics and he's a magnet for controversy. The prominent social conservative leader, who nearly won the party's 2010 gubernatorial nomination, has called homosexuality a "public health risk." Vander Plaats is mulling a campaign in a primary that already features a handful of candidates.

Mark Harris is also a social conservative, but he's far less well-known nationally than his Iowa counterpart. In North Carolina, the Baptist pastor spearheaded the 2012 adoption of a constitutional ban on gay marriage. His nomination would beget a renewed debate over an issue the national party can't backpedal from fast enough.

And if Broun weren't enough, the Georgia GOP field has another potentially combustible candidate: Rep. Phil Gingrey. Earlier this year, Gingrey defended Akin's comment about rape, then apologized.

Other candidates might yet emerge; Republican operatives like to point out that although Akin was never the establishment favorite, few considered him an enormous liability. Mostly, he was just known as a soft-spoken politician with an unremarkable legislative record. But for now, these are the ones on the GOP's early-watch list.

None of them, according to Republicans, amount to half the threat posed by Broun. They're either seen as not credible enough to win the nomination (Gingrey and, especially, Miller), unlikely to enter at all (Vander Plaats), less combustible than their résumé would suggest (Harris), or running in a state that Republicans have already written off (Buck). "From a Republican standpoint, Paul Broun is the only one we're really worried about," said a GOP strategist tracking the 2014 Senate races, granted anonymity in order to speak candidly about the political landscape.

Broun isn't only the caricature of a controversy-courting politician. He actually has the pedigree of a top-flight politician—his father, Paul Broun Sr., was a longtime Democratic state senator from Athens, Ga., and a friend to former President Carter. A doctor and a Marine, the younger Broun was deployed to Afghanistan last year as a Navy reservist.

In person, Broun carries on with voters like an old master of retail politics. At the Women's Federation, he hugged and clasped the hands of all those who approached him, greeting them with his Georgia-inflected baritone and a warm smile. And regardless of what he's said in the past, Broun appears intent on taking a more conventional line now. The most radical notes in his stump speech call for abolishing the Education Department and the Environmental Protection Agency—not exactly mainstream thinking, but hardly extreme positions within the Republican Party anymore.

In an interview, Broun didn't talk about abortion, taking on the establishment, or even President Obama; nor did he take the bait when asked about these subjects. He explained his candidacy's rationale in the most conventional way. "I'm representing those two little boys over there," Broun told National Journal, pointing to kids in matching baseball uniforms. They, like Broun, were attending a chili cook-off hosted by the county GOP. "So that when they grow up they'll have a job. So when they grow up, they'll have a strong economy. So that they'll have opportunity to be successful in life and provide for their family and not have government telling them how to run their lives."

Asked if he planned to emulate Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, the conservative base's current rock star, Broun demurred. He has a lot of friends in the upper chamber, he said, and wants to work with Republicans and Democrats.

Broun's paeans to moderation, however, don't change the central fact of his candidacy as the establishment sees it: He's a ticking time bomb. In its telling, Broun had a free pass to his congressional seat, winning a special election in 2007 by fewer than 1,000 votes against a gaffe-prone candidate. He's held the safely conservative district ever since. Broun's past—which includes his congressional office spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on mailers—has never gotten the kind of scrutiny it would in a high-profile Senate contest. This is a candidate who earlier this year voted for former Rep. Allen West to be speaker of the House, has bragged about being the first to call Obama a "socialist," and—of course—flirted with birtherism.

The GOP fears that if Broun wins the nomination, MSNBC will have enough content for weeks.

Republican operatives and leaders in Atlanta and Washington firmly believe that Broun hasn't just been the victim of a few unfortunate gaffes. One Republican strategist, familiar with Broun and unaffiliated with a rival campaign, put the chance of the lawmaker stirring controversy the way Akin did at "almost 100 percent." Others were just as blunt. "Broun's candidacy does represent a real threat," said Joel McElhannon, a GOP consultant in the state. "Georgia voters tend to be conservative, but on a statewide basis they tend not to be crazy. So that's a problem for someone like Paul Broun."

But the party establishment's fight to control the campaign in Georgia is not taking place on a level battlefield. The primary is a multicandidate free-for-all where the top two candidates move on to a runoff. In a race featuring a former secretary of state, a wealthy businessman, and three House members, campaign insiders say it might take only 23 percent of the vote to reach the runoff.

Broun's home district and his deep appeal to Christian Republicans offer him a clear path to reach that number in a race with no solid favorites. And in a two-candidate runoff, the thinking goes, anyone can win. "I think it's still a jump ball," said Jack Kingston, Broun's colleague in the House and rival for the Senate.

3-D CHESS

The GOP's consulting class is keenly aware that its job won't be easy. Manipulating Senate races is like playing a game of three-dimensional chess: Every move brings a cascade of consequences, few of which even the savviest of operators can predict.

Just consider how many actors will be involved in next year's Senate races: the candidates' campaigns; the National Republican Senatorial Committee; the establishment-friendly American Crossroads; business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; outside conservative groups such as the Club for Growth; and the biggest wild card—independent super PACs funded by wealthy donors. A conservative revolt paired with loosened campaign finance regulations have combined to endow a lot of very different groups with a lot of very big checkbooks.

As much as each is watching the race, they're watching one another just as closely. If, for example, the chamber began a TV ad campaign targeting Miller in Alaska, it could draw a counterattack from an organization such as the Jim DeMint-founded Senate Conservatives Fund. And suddenly a candidate whom Republicans pray will slip quietly into the night is instead thrust into the spotlight, earning a boost not just from advertising but from local base conservatives who traditionally flock to antiestablishment candidates.

Such a scenario is Georgia GOP leaders' nightmare, so much so that some wise men advise against any kind of engagement with Broun and his ilk. "If you go on TV and you're attacking Paul Broun, to a certain extent, you're only giving him awareness and recognition he wouldn't otherwise have," McElhannon said. "Ignoring him might be the best thing to do in this circumstance."

But here's where yet another wrinkle is added to the game: If Republicans stay out, Democrats will surely jump in. After all, Akin didn't win the GOP's nomination on his own. Democrats, spearheaded by Sen. Claire McCaskill, ran ads pumping up the underfunded candidateduring his three-way primary, thinly disguised spots that ostensibly denigrated the congressman as too conservative but were designed to help ensure Akin's victory.

There's a universal expectation in Georgia that Democrats—whether it's the Nunn campaign, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, or the Senate Majority PAC—will try to provide a similar boost for Broun. "Based on what occurred in the 2012 Akin primary, it wouldn't surprise me if there was some mischief on the part of the national Democratic Party to try to influence the outcome," said Eric Tanenblatt, a prominent Georgia Republican who was Mitt Romney's national finance cochairman last year.

The establishment GOP also has a batch of lesser tools at its disposal. Fueled by opposition research, it can malign troublesome candidates early, before they gain momentum, to cut off support and fundraising. A few Republicans with thick wallets could form their own super PACs, and, free from the controversy attached to a group like Crossroads, launch attacks. The party might be able to rely on the GOP's business wing, fed up after October's dual government-shutdown and default imbroglios.

The notion of an organic, grassroots push-back against the activist class by "mainstream Republican" rank-and-file is the establishment's nirvana. Such an idea is generally mocked as implausible—moderate Republicans, by definition, are not as committed to the cause, and hence will always cede control to the more involved conservative hard-liners.

But in Iowa, the mecca of grassroots politics, the GOP is trying to prove the skeptics wrong. Most observers expect that the party's nominee will be chosen at the GOP state convention, where some 2,000 delegates will gather. (Under Iowa rules, the nominee is picked at the convention if no candidate receives at least 35 percent of the vote, and few expect that anyone in a field that could ultimately run six candidates deep will cross the threshold.) Conventions often are a political disaster for Republicans—that's how the losing Virginia ticket of Ken Cuccinelli and E.W. Jackson emerged—because only activists go through the four-step process to attend.

This year, however, establishment Republicans are recruiting mainstream voters to participate. "Getting people who don't feel real strongly about anything to show up for a convention is a difficult thing to do, but because of things like the shutdown … they're getting moderates roweled up," said Doug Gross, a longtime GOP operative in Iowa. "Woody Allen was right: At least half of life, or 90 percent of it, is showing up."

And some Republicans hope that conservative outside groups, if they don't lay down their swords, will at least swing their blades more carefully. American Crossroads, which isn't legally barred like the NRSC from talking to its third-party counterparts, is providing all organizations with what amounts to an opposition-research file on every credible candidate. "The groups who spend serious resources need a review of all the public statements, prior votes, and a general sense of what that candidate will look like in a general election," said Crossroads spokesman Jonathan Collegio.

He added, "We don't want to nominate a candidate and then find out they had dabbled in witchcraft or have ugly views about what constitutes rape. At the end of the day, the Democrats will find out everything they need to know about that candidate, and Republicans need to know everything about them too."

Broun rejects the notion that outside groups will determine the election. Asked about the potential influence, he paused at length. "Georgians are going to elect the next senator," he said, a response he echoed several times during the interview.

He might be right. It's not as if Republicans weren't mindful of making sure the most electable candidate won previous races, and they weren't able to stop people like O'Donnell and Mourdock from winning the nomination. "I'd like to play shortstop for the Braves next year, but it's not going to happen," said one official from a Georgia campaign. "There are some things you just can't control."

The ladies back in the Women's Federation ballroom would agree. A victory line of handshakes, congratulations, and hugs awaited Broun after he finished talking. None of the attendees, many of whom had worked in GOP politics for decades, cared about his controversial past or the establishment's deep doubts about his candidacy. None seemed to care that the Democrat he would face in the general election, Michelle Nunn, the daughter of popular former conservative Democrat Sam Nunn, is a strong contender with serious fundraising chops.

And Broun himself seemed the least concerned. "Michelle can't win this race," he whispered to Heath Garrett as the longtime Republican strategist walked to the front of the room to deliver his own speech. "Even Democrats are telling me that." Garrett, a friend of Broun's, shook his hand, nodded slightly, and then proceeded to the mic to deliver what amounted to an implicit rebuke of Broun. "We have to win back the Senate if we're going to implement any of our conservative principles," he said. "What are we doing … to make sure a conservative who can win in that state is the nominee for the Republican Party?"

But Broun, through it all, didn't seem to be paying attention. He sat in a chair in the back corner of the room, legs folded and glasses at the tip of his nose, reading a smartphone. He didn't look worried.

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