The Very Last Thing Republicans Have to Fight About

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

National Journal
Fawn Johnson
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Fawn Johnson
March 4, 2014, midnight

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.

FER­TILE GROUND

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.”

CLONED COM­PLAINTS

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.”

PARTY PUR­ITY

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.

UGLY POLIT­ICS

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 AL.com, 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.”

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