The Very Last Thing Republicans Have to Fight About

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

Alabama Tea Party member Kay Day of Irvington, Ala., demonstrates in front of the Alabama Statehouse in Montgomery, Ala., as lawmakers gathered inside on the first day of their regular legislative session.  Day was protesting Alabama's efforts in the Common Core education guidelines. 
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.


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.”

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