Stopping the New Todd Akins

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

UNITED STATES Ð AUGUST 12: Rep. Paul Broun, M.D., R-Ga., arrives to hold his town hall meeting at the Oglethorpe County Farm Bureau in Crawford, Ga., on Monday, Aug. 12, 2013. 
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Alex Roarty
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Alex Roarty
Nov. 18, 2013, midnight

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

3-D CHESS

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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