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The Very Last Thing Republicans Have to Fight About

While the national party talks about broadening the base, local activists are purging the ranks.


Agenda setting: A tea-party member protests Common Core as state lawmakers gather inside Alabama’s Statehouse.(AP Photo/Dave Martin)

HUNTSVILLE, Ala.—Mary Scott Hunter is a lifelong Republican, military veteran, military wife, corporate lawyer, small-business owner, Sunday school teacher, and mom of three school-age kids. Her father was a star quarterback on the University of Alabama’s football team. Her mother was a cheerleader. She is an elected member of the state school board and is often mentioned as a possible gubernatorial candidate.

If only she can survive the tea party’s quest to end her career.


That wing of the party really doesn’t like Hunter. Tea partiers use words like “dimwit” and “liar” to describe her. They’ve publicly censured her. They tried to take her name off the Republican primary ballot. They say she talks down to them and her motives are suspect. She doesn’t even use her husband’s name, her critics say, because she’s trying to cash in on recognition of her quarterback hero father. “I could give a rat’s bell who her father was,” says Penny Melton, member of a Republican women’s group waging a campaign against her.

All of this vitriol stems from Hunter’s support for the Common Core education standards that tea-party conservatives see as big-business and big-government encroachment. It almost doesn’t matter whether they are right.

From Alabama and Tennessee to Indiana and Wisconsin, Republicans don’t have much left to fight about. They control the governors’ offices and the state legislatures. They all hate President Obama. They all hate Obamacare. They all hate entitlements and the welfare state. They all hate the debt and government spending and unions. That leaves Common Core, unique as a state issue among the typically federal disputes that divide establishment Republicans and their tea-party insurgents.


In Alabama—and other centers of conservative extremism around the country—the standards are part of a purging from the local ranks of any person who doesn’t fall in line on every piece of the party platform. For local politicians throughout the nation, Common Core is the final purity test that some demand party members meet if they want to avoid being expelled.

It’s not just Hunter who’s been targeted in Alabama. Tea-party groups also despise state Superintendent of Education Tommy Bice, described as “slick as glass” by one tea partier, as well as state Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, who blocked an anti-Common-Core bill from coming to the floor last year and earned the title “The Harry Reid of Alabama” for it.

In Wisconsin, even conservative Gov. Scott Walker is a target. A tea-party phone-in campaign tried to pressure the Republican executive to announce in his State of the State address that he would stop implementing Common Core. He didn’t, and now it’s the Wisconsin tea party’s top priority.

In Ohio, a public hearing on a state bill to repeal Common Core lasted six hours, until 1 a.m., because angry tea partiers were lining up to give House Education Committee Chairman Gerald Stebelton a piece of their minds. The Republican was dubbed “Stompyfeet Stebelton” by the tea-party-affiliated group Education Freedom Ohio for his lack of enthusiasm for repealing Common Core.


Stebelton is term-limited after this year, so tea-party groups are focusing on John Kasich, Ohio’s GOP governor, who is up for reelection and has backtracked on his initial support for Common Core. They are pushing him to say he supports legislation to repeal it.

In Tennessee, support for Common Core has gotten Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman in trouble, and in Indiana, state Superintendent Tony Bennett lost his job.

This might all look like a fight over education standards. It’s not. It’s a battle for control of the Republican Party. And in that fight, people like Hunter, Bice, Marsh, Walker, Haslam, Huffman, and Bennett are the captives.

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The Common Core school standards are an unusually fertile litmus test to assess Republicans’ purity. The standards are massive. They are a series of grade-by-grade benchmarks in math and reading that are meant to be stacked onto one another such that achievement of Grade 1 levels naturally flow into the tasks for Grade 2. In theory, all kids who learn along Common Core lines will be ready for college or a career by the time they graduate from high school. But there’s a thousand things about them—some accurate, some wildly hypothetical—that arouse suspicion. To wit, the standards call for children to be trained and tested on computers. Lo and behold, a big backer of Common Core is Microsoft tycoon Bill Gates.

“When you see that kind of thing, you’re like, ‘Wait a minute. You’re going to do away with textbooks,’ ” says Ann Eubank, the legislative chair of the Rainy Day Patriots, an Alabama tea-party group. She has compiled “3 feet of research” on the rottenness of Common Core—showing, among other things, that the entire system is built to make computer magnates rich. “Follow the money,” she instructs.

Hunter became the symbol of Alabama’s GOP friction last August, when the Madison County Republicans took the unusual step of censuring her for “dereliction of duty.” Her crime was refusing to support legislation that would have repealed Alabama’s adoption of Common Core. “We all were dogging her, and we thought she was going to go down there and vote our way. No, she voted for Common Core. She didn’t stand up for us,” says Dean Johnson, a Huntsville lawyer who spearheaded the county party’s effort to name Hunter in the censure.

And now she has dug in. Using her talking points about Alabama’s standards, Hunter launched her campaign for reelection last November in a race that her opponents see as a referendum not just on Common Core but also the establishment Republicans who support it. In her critics’ minds, it’s a fight for Alabama’s very soul. “Civilization as we know it during our lives is coming to an end if we allow the federal government to tell us everything we’re going to do with our education system,” says Johnson, a chief nemesis of the school board member.

In February, Johnson engineered a challenge to Hunter’s candidacy, arguing that while she calls herself a Republican, she actually has taken up a “Democrat and liberal standard,” because of her support of Common Core. The state GOP candidate committee voted not to hear the challenge.

Johnson, the Republican Women of Madison, and the Rainy Day Patriots say they have targets in the state Legislature, too—state Rep. Mike Ball, a Republican from Madison who supports Common Core, and Sen. Bill Holtzclaw, another Madison Republican who has dismissed the tea party’s fears about Common Core as a “bogeyman.”

In these tea partiers’ minds, their fellow Republicans are as untrustworthy as Obama. “They’re all very slick, very smooth talkers; yes, very articulate, all very smooth talkers,” says Dee Voelkel, one of the Madison County GOP members who voted to censure Hunter. “Bill Holtzclaw, Mary Scott Hunter, Obama: You know they’re very, very similar. They’re very smooth.”


There is a similarity across states in how Common Core opponents talk about their adversaries. They all say these GOP elected officials—often in power positions such as chairman of the education committee or school commissioner—refuse to listen to them. They all say they aren’t as stupid as their foes think they are. They all feel like money and insider political influence have overpowered them. And being the underdogs makes them only more determined. They have no qualms about turning against their own party in defense of their principles.

Bennett, Indiana’s former state schools superintendent, was an early victim of this kind of protest. He lost his reelection campaign in 2012 largely because of his unapologetic support for the Common Core standards, which prompted Republican voters to ditch him en masse. Even more amazing in this ruby-red state, Bennett’s Republican detractors were willing to accept that a mostly unknown Democrat, Glenda Ritz, would win the post.

“I couldn’t vote for either one, and I didn’t vote for either one. I know that’s bad. I sit on the Republican committee,” says Patricia Schneider, president of the Indiana Eagle Forum, a tea-party group.

She wasn’t alone. Heather Crossin, a registered Republican who founded Hoosiers Against Common Core, also left her ballot choice for state superintendent blank, knowing full well that it could result in a Democrat winning the office. There was no way she was voting for Bennett.

In other states, the fight is just getting started. Members of Tennessee Against Common Core spent most of last spring visiting individual state legislators to talk to them about the standards. Its founder, Karen Bracken, said most of them didn’t know what she was talking about. This year, her group and local tea-party allies are trying to get a repeal bill passed, and their list of Republican targets is long.

It starts with Gov. Haslam and Education Commissioner Huffman, both Common Core supporters. Also on notice are state Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Dolores Gresham and House Education Committee Chairman Harry Brooks. Bracken says the two are “definitely not friends of our organization.”

“If Common Core does not get repealed, we will go after them politically,” she says.

“Governor Haslam will be the No. 1 target. Even though he is a Republican, he is not on the side of his constituents,” Bracken said. “We are not going to put our tail between our legs and go away. We will make sure that some of these people do not get reelected.”

In Wisconsin, Edward Perkins, president of the tea-party group Fox Valley Initiative, had similar words of warning for his state’s officials. “If you refuse to address this issue, we’ll say, ‘All right. We now will take it into your political campaign,’ ” he says. “Primarily, we will focus on Republicans.”


For all of these groups, the aim is to weed out people who are not sufficiently conservative. There’s no place for moderation.

Back in Alabama, Hugh McInnish, a retired engineer and a conservative activist who voted to censure school board member Hunter, worries that people who in a more liberal state would be Democrats are diluting Alabama’s Republican Party. “It’s fair to say that in Alabama, the Democratic Party is the black party and the Republican Party is the white party,” he says. “Almost anyone [white] who wants to seek political office has got to run as a Republican. We now have all of the old Democrats saying, ‘I want to be a Republican,’ and they are not.”

There’s some truth to this in his state, where for the first time since Reconstruction, Republicans have a majority—nay, a supermajority—in the state Legislature. The only Democrats left are African-Americans.

But it’s just this quest for conformity across issues at the local level that is hurting the GOP nationally, leaving no space for people who might agree with the party on most but not all issues.

This is the fundamental battle that Hunter finds herself fighting. “I see myself as a Republican who is interested in adding, and not subtracting or dividing,” she says. “You have a list of things that are platform issues in the Republican Party, and for people that agree with more than half of them and want to be part of this party, my attitude is, OK!”

McInnish, by contrast, says he already is open to a third party. His wife, Martha, says one of her biggest fears is that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will ascend to the Republican presidential ballot in 2016, because he favors abortion rights and, in many ways, is pro-government.

Hunter opposes abortion rights (although she says she has never been asked before), but says she would be happy to see an abortion-rights-supporting Republican like Christie run for office. Particularly if he can win.

Therein lies the distinction. McInnish would rather be affiliated with a fringe group that agrees with him completely, while Hunter wants her party to grow bigger and win elections. And in pursuit of winning, she is willing to see her party accept diverging views.


The Madison County Republicans’ vote to censure Hunter was a decisive 25-12. And several members who voted against it did so only because they did not approve of reprimanding one of their own. It was an empty gesture, a slap on the wrist, with no practical impact other than to call attention to some ugly fissures within the party.

The reprimand ratcheted up Hunter’s public profile as a fighter. One of her campaign aides privately joked that she should get censured again, preferably a month or so before the primary election in June. The state media also took her side, with The Anniston Star applauding her “spunk” in discarding a shortsighted party line, and, a popular online news site, saying the censure showed “a lack of common sense” within the GOP.

But the dispute comes with a price. Complaints about Hunter have moved from the professional realm to the personal, as happens in political purges. Her critics shake their heads disapprovingly because she doesn’t use her married name. One of them says her husband “walks 2 feet behind her.”

The personal attacks will be almost impossible to smooth over, and Hunter hasn’t yet mastered an iron-lady mask that walls off her feelings. She blinks back tears when she hears that the Republican Women of Madison say she has deliberately ignored them. “Oh, my goodness, they’ve done such wonderful work influencing this board, and influencing me,” she says. “I don’t want to do this without them. They are so important to me.”

She worries about gaffes. “I want to be elected. I’m just like everyone else. I love my job,” she confides. “But I never want to value the position over the opportunity.”

Her difficulty in absorbing attacks is palpable, a rare show of humanity in politics. It causes her friends to rush to her defense. “Are you writing about how Republicans treat their women like shit?” one of them asks at her fundraiser.

In truth, Hunter has a lot of supporters, and they say her critics make up a vocal minority. The supporters are a mix of business leaders, education groups, and even Democrats. There is no way to tell how powerful her opponents are, but they have proven that even if they are few in number they can be effective in stoking an angry fire.

There is a lot of anger in Alabama and in other red states where people feel the establishment has sold them out. To clarify: They feel sold out by Republicans, not Democrats. “It occurred to me one day it didn’t do any good to save a ranch and lose the country,” says Ken Freeman, a member of the Madison County Republicans.

These agitators see their GOP targets as betrayers who are feeding at the trough of big business and influential political institutions. “Politicians being what politicians are, they only know two things—getting power and keeping power,” says Tennessee’s Bracken. “Bill Gates has bought off the chamber of commerce. He’s bought off the PTA. His money has bought off everybody that he can.”

People like Alabama’s Mary Scott Hunter and Tennessee’s Bill Haslam are already the enemy. They have irrevocably dirtied their hands by allying themselves with an issue that, their opponents say, smacks of power and money.

But it’s awfully hard to climb the political ladder without stumbling into puddles of money and power. And it’s just as hard to win general elections by molding your public persona to satisfy every criterion of an ardent activist base.

Hunter tries to keep calm amid the storm. She listens to more-seasoned politicians who have endured this kind of abuse and hopes to grow a thicker skin. Her friend Mike Ball, a state House member who also is on the tea party’s black list, has told her to stay above the fray. “A lot of times when people are jacked up about politics, it’s not about government,” he says. “It’s about them.”

This article appears in the March 1, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as The Last Litmus Test.

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