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The Party Crashers: Behind the New Republican Revival

16 minute read
David Von Drehle

1. The Upstart
It was the winter of 2009, and the echoes of “Yes, we can!” still reverberated across the land. Barack Obama had just been elected President with more than 53% of the vote — a huge number for a Democrat, the biggest in more than 40 years. In Congress, the Democrats had blitzed their opponents for the second time in a row. They now occupied 54 more seats in the House and 12 more in the Senate than they had held a mere 28 months earlier.

You might not have known it by following the news in those days, but Republicans still existed. Most were just trying to figure out how to make their way in that hostile environment. One of them, Florida Governor Charlie Crist, reckoned something along the lines of: if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. He appeared onstage with the new President on the eve of a congressional vote to spend nearly $800 billion on economic stimulus and liberal initiatives. On that sunny Florida day, Crist heartily endorsed the bill. For good measure, he gave Obama a hug.

(See pictures of souvenirs from the Tea Party.)

Another Florida Republican had a different idea. His name was Marco Rubio. He was the baby-faced former speaker of the Florida legislature. Well-wired Floridians knew that Rubio was thinking about challenging Crist for a seat in the U.S. Senate, and they also knew that this was quixotic because Crist had at least a 30-point lead in the polls, plus friends and money and endorsements from powerful Republicans around the country.

But Rubio saw an opportunity in that hug. If one possible Republican strategy was to embrace the Democratic spending agenda, surely there was a case to be made for opposing it. Rubio decided to “stand up to this Big Government agenda, not be co-opted by it,” and three months after The Hug, tossed his hat into the ring. The date was May 5, 2009.

(See “40 Under 40: The Rising Stars of American Politics.”)

Looking back, that was the day the 2010 election truly began — not just the campaign for a Senate seat from Florida but the broad national campaign for control of Congress and the direction of the country. Rubio’s decision to wage a philosophical battle for the soul of the Florida GOP was a catalyst for the surprising and outrageous events that followed. He became a darling of the nascent Tea Party movement and a point man in the movement’s purge of the GOP establishment. Rubio led the way for a dust-kicking herd of dark-horse candidates — some thoroughbreds, some nags. And most of all, Rubio symbolized the fact that this year’s midterms have become a referendum on such fundamental issues as the role of government and the size of the public debt.

Midterm elections are often just rough measurements of the public’s mood and the President’s popularity. But this year, pressed by an uprising on the right, the election has become a fight for the identity of the Republican Party. In a sense, 2010 has turned into Act II of the 2008 GOP drama, in which the free-spending George W. Bush was barely welcome at his own party’s convention and the nomination went to a man famous for flouting party loyalty. As in Hamlet, the action ended with most of the main characters forgotten or dead. Now we’re seeing how an empty stage gets repopulated, as conservatives across the country have elbowed their way into the spotlight, some ready for their star turn, others stumbling over their lines.

(See TIME’s special report “2010: Races to Watch.”)

The theme of the drama is clear. In an age of Big Government solutions to crushing public problems, the new script for the GOP is adapted from the famous words of the late William F. Buckley Jr., conservative guru. The Republican Party is standing athwart the Age of Obama, yelling, Stop! The party may not have an agenda, entirely, but it certainly has a battle cry. As Rubio has put it, “We have reached a point in our history when we must decide if we are to continue on the free-market, limited-government path that has made us exceptional or if we are prepared to follow the rest of the world down the road of government dependency.”

For embattled Democrats, facing the looming loss of the House of Representatives and a much weakened position in the Senate, this is rich. They can’t help feeling that talk of fiscal discipline from the GOP is like a Sunday-morning temperance sermon delivered by a Saturday-night drunk. It’s especially galling because they believe the mess of broken glassware and dirty ashtrays is being blamed on them. And the GOP insurgents couldn’t agree more. As Tea Party rock star Ken Cuccinelli, attorney general of Virginia, declared to roisterous cheers at a recent rally: “I don’t think there’d be a Tea Party if the Republican Party had been a party of limited government in the first part of this decade.”

We’ll read the public’s reaction on Election Day, but the verdict inside the GOP has already been rendered. Republicans propose to take a fresh shot at being the party of smaller government (or no government), and anyone who won’t sing that hymn is being thrown out of the choir. The budget-stomping bull of New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie, is the party’s new role model, while in the GOP stronghold of Utah, longtime Senator Bob Bennett was rudely dumped simply because he engaged in earmarking and voted for the bank bailout. Small-government purists have captured GOP nominations for major offices from New York to Alaska, Colorado to Kentucky.

“Look, the time to go along and get along is over,” House Republican conference chairman Mike Pence of Indiana said in an Oct. 21 radio interview. In other words, don’t look for a return to the wheeling and dealing of the Bush years. “We’ve got a cavalry of men and women headed to Washington, D.C., that are going to stand with us,” Pence said, and there will be “no compromise on stopping runaway spending, deficits and debt. There will be no compromise on repealing Obamacare.”

Watch TIME’s video “The GOP: Optimism and Obstacles.”

See “Is the GOP Overconfident? Three Midterm Challenges.”

As for the original upstart, Rubio, he guessed right. By the winter of 2010, he had gone from pip-squeak to powerhouse, raising millions of dollars from energized conservatives while radiating the glow of a budding star. Crist’s huge lead on the day of The Hug evaporated like a puddle on a Sarasota parking lot as Rubio gained heat, until finally, in April of this year, Crist announced that he would quit the GOP primary and run as an independent. Entering the final days of the campaign, Rubio had a commanding lead in the polls.

2. The Populist
Rubio sounded positively Reaganesque as he brought down the house earlier this year at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. At 39, he has some growing to do before he can wear the old man’s shoes, but the family resemblance is there. His speech blended Democrat bashing and muscle flexing with a ringing dose of only-in-America uplift.

Something different is at work with Rand Paul, something more theoretical and astringent. Poised to win a Senate seat from Kentucky, Paul promotes a version of the small-government revival that owes little to Horatio Alger’s rags-to-riches tales and much to Ayn Rand, the radical prophet of extreme individualism. “What is greed?” Paul has asked. “Greed is an excess of self-interest, but what drives capitalism? Self-interest and profit. They are good things.” Paul isn’t a spiritual son of Ronald Reagan, but he is an actual son of libertarian Ron Paul, the Texas Congressman and onetime Republican presidential candidate whose ties to the GOP have always been tenuous. Why? Because the Paul family philosophy disapproves of not just spending projects adored by Democrats but also federal interventions of all kinds, from a too muscular military to the Federal Reserve.

(See pictures of the emergence of Rand Paul.)

Making his first run for office, Rand Paul, a Bowling Green ophthalmologist, steamrolled the anointed candidate of the Kentucky GOP establishment. Rank-and-file Republicans were drawn to the purity of Paul’s message: no new taxes, fewer federal agencies, dramatically less spending. He frowned on the invasion of Iraq, dreamed of privatizing Social Security and proposed to leave such divisive cultural issues as abortion and gay marriage to be decided state by state.

Like his dad, Paul, 47, is an ideological purist running in a year when a lot of voters are looking to draw bright, hard lines. Libertarians enjoy thinking outside the box; give them a choice between Column A and Column B and they’ll tell you why both columns are a threat to freedom. Paul’s Democratic opponent, Kentucky attorney general Jack Conway, tried to make hay of the fact that years ago, Paul joined an iconoclastic underground club while attending straitlaced Baylor University. But Conway missed the point: iconoclasm isn’t a flaw for Republicans this year; it’s a religion. In the party of neocons, paleocons, and social cons, libertarians are the contra-cons — they don’t buy anyone else’s agenda. Theirs is a right-wing brand of politics that can be anti-war and pro-marijuana. This may help to illuminate Paul’s awkward straddle on the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He said he would have marched with Martin Luther King Jr. but had certain reservations about the landmark law. Because while bigotry is bad, Paul doesn’t think the federal government should limit the freedom of private citizens to be bigots. “Decisions concerning private property and associations should, in a free society, be unhindered,” he has said.

(See “Rand Paul: A True Believer Tries to Survive a Rocky Campaign.”)

Heading to Election Day, Paul appeared to have a solid lead over Democrat Conway — though that was before a violent incident involving Paul volunteers. On Oct. 25, when a protester from the liberal group MoveOn.org approached the candidate, she was wrestled to the ground, and a Paul supporter pushed his foot down on her head as cameras rolled. Paul blamed lax crowd control, adding, “Any level of aggression or violence is deplorable.”

If Dr. Paul goes to Washington, he will find the purity of his ideas severely tested by the popularity of the government programs he opposes. Voters may like the sound of his small-government speechifying, but they also like their Social Security and Medicare and Pell Grants and nearby jobs generators like Fort Campbell and Fort Knox. For every dollar the state sends to Washington in taxes, its delegation brings home at least $1.50. How will voters feel about a Senator who wants to turn off the money tap?

(Comment on this story.)

3. The Billionaire
As CEO of eBay, Meg Whitman helped create the online-auction economy and some 15,000 jobs in the bargain, becoming a billionaire in the process. She seemed like the perfect embodiment of the Republican alternative to Big Government — the free-market entrepreneur. But while the upstart Rubio and the outsider Paul have prospered this election season, Whitman has struggled. Despite spending more than $100 million of her own money on the campaign, Whitman is heading to Nov. 2 trailing the opposition — in her case, the eternal California Democrat Jerry Brown. Whitman’s story, unlike Rubio’s or Paul’s, points to the limits of the GOP’s message. Even if she pulls off an upset, the uphill nature of her campaign suggests that her timing was off. You would expect that California voters would be hungry for something new, given the depth of their economic woes and the paralysis of the state’s government. Yet Brown, elected statewide four times over 40 years, is the opposite of new.

Se the top viral campaign videos.

See “Poll: Independents Keep GOP Ahead in Four Key Senate Races.”

Whitman’s problem is that the bloom is off the rose of the CEO. If the economic collapse proved anything, it is that having a lot of money doesn’t always make a person wise. What’s more, recent years have shown us that some of the same tycoons who extol small government when it’s time to pay their taxes will dash to Washington on their private jets to beg a bailout the minute things go sour. They admire the creative destruction of the free market only until it’s their turn to be destroyed.

In a Gallup poll earlier this year, Big Business ranked among the least trusted institutions in America — even lower than the news media. The free-spending Whitman has been whipsawed by that perception. On issues large and small, ranging from her ties to Goldman Sachs to her former nanny’s immigration status, Democrats have endeavored to convert Whitman’s most obvious strength (her financial acumen) into a fatal flaw.

(See TIME’s video “Social Issues and the 2010 Midterms.”)

Voters are ready to throw the bums out, and CEOs have joined the ranks of the bums. The same dilemma faces former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina as she seeks to unseat California Senator Barbara Boxer. After three terms in office, Democrat Boxer has struggled to reach 50% support in the polls, yet she held a slight lead over Fiorina in the last days of the campaign. Meanwhile, in the race to be Florida’s next governor, Republican Rick Scott, a hospital-industry entrepreneur, was neck and neck with former banking executive Alex Sink, a Democrat. Their debates have largely boiled down to trading jabs over which of them was the more rapacious and irresponsible mogul. It’s that kind of year.

4. The Troublemaker
But if it’s good to be an underdog and a step or two outside the GOP mainstream, the story of Christine O’Donnell suggests that outsidery underdoggedness can be taken too far.

(Comment on this story.)

No one familiar with Delaware politics would have been surprised when O’Donnell entered the Republican Senate primary against the state’s lone Congressman, Representative Mike Castle. After all, 2010 marked O’Donnell’s third bid for the Senate, and her previous two bids showed that she had a weakness for hopeless cases. In 2006, when the Evangelical Christian conservative challenged Senator Thomas Carper as a write-in candidate, she received fewer than 12,000 votes to Carper’s 170,000. Two years later, O’Donnell won the GOP nomination to face now Vice President Joe Biden, who won by 30 percentage points. This time around, Delaware Republican chairman Tom Ross, a Castle backer, believes O’Donnell is running because campaign donations help pay her household bills. “She’s a candidate who runs for office [who] unfortunately lives off the proceeds,” he said.

O’Donnell certainly has none of Whitman’s problems of too much money and too many connections. She was an occasionally employed activist known for her appearances as a panelist on comedian Bill Maher’s old television show, Politically Incorrect. Voters soon learned that she had fallen behind on her house payments, which helped her relate to real people, she explained. More questions arose: about her record of tardy campaign-finance reports, about the fact that her campaign was paying her rent, about the claims about her education that did not check out. As for the time she told Maher about dabbling in witchcraft? She was referring to high school, she explained. “If I were planning to run for office” during those TV appearances, “I would have been much more guarded,” O’Donnell recently told an interviewer. “Not that I regret anything I’ve said, but because I’m a vocal person. I state my opinion when I think that something’s wrong or right. I speak up.” The surprise came when O’Donnell defeated Castle for the Republican nomination. This was both a high-water mark and a low moment for Tea Party influence inside the GOP. It proved that the small-government purists were in fact the driving force of 2010. Castle was well known, well funded and well organized. He had solid support from state and national Republican institutions, which saw in him an excellent chance to pick up a seat that had been held by Democrats for decades. Castle’s only offense was squishiness, a cardinal sin to the insurgents. So they dumped him in favor of a much weaker candidate, in part just to show that they could.

(See pictures of souvenirs from the Tea Party.)

This gesture might end up costing the GOP control of the Senate, because O’Donnell quickly proved herself to be a crate of tea that wouldn’t float. With her nomination, Democrat Chris Coons went from a double-digit deficit to a double-digit lead. As his star rose, Republicans’ hopes of recapturing the Senate sank, dragged down by a candidate who was not ready even for cable television. But O’Donnell’s startling, out-of-nowhere rise has already put a scare into any remaining moderates who might have failed to heed Charlie Crist’s lesson.

And so the drama of 2010 plainly sets the stage for Act III in 2012. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky previewed the action in an interview published eight days before the voting, saying the “single most important thing that we want to achieve” after the election “is for President Obama to be a one-term President.” To that end, candidates are already jockeying for position at the front of the GOP casting call. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in late October pandered to the muscle-flexing Tea Partyers by denouncing all doubters of O’Donnell as “country club” elitists. Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, another aspirant, is tacking hard in the Tea Party direction, giving a sharper edge to what used to be his amiable, pragmatic persona. With CEOs out of favor, Mitt Romney of Massachusetts — whose failed 2008 presidential bid was built on his skill as a corporate-turnaround artist — may require retooling. And it goes without saying that all eyes will remain on Sarah Palin’s Facebook page.

Remember, at this point two years ago, Crist was king of Florida politics, and Rubio was an asterisk. History tells us that small-government conservatism is a volatile element in the Republican coalition — powerful, restorative but also potentially explosive. It fueled Reagan’s landslide victories in 1980 and 1984. But the same energy backfired in Barry Goldwater’s crushing 1964 defeat. The fight to harness its power is a big story, and that story is only beginning.

See “Scenes from a Midterm-Election Road Trip.”

See pictures of Republican memorabilia.

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