The Other McCain

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How Rich Republican Insiders Help Destroy the Party’s Grassroots Enthusiasm

Posted on | October 4, 2010 | 9 Comments

Anyone who’s ever had much dealing with the Republican Party establishment nods in recognition when Rush Limbaugh talks about “bluebloods” and “country clubbers” as the bane of the GOP.

Limbaugh himself is, of course, a wealthy man. However, Rush’s wealth is self-made, whereas the “bluebloods” to whom he refers are those who inherited (or married) money, and the “country clubbers” are the snobby know-it-all GOP insiders who look down on the party’s conservative rank-and-file.

This class divide within the Republican Party is a serious problem for the GOP because the tight-knit relationship between big-money donors and their well-connected establishment friends sends a message to the grassroots that their participation isn’t welcome. When all the important decisions are made by party insiders, the grassroots won’t volunteer to man phone banks and canvass precincts. And as the party becomes more and more controlled by the “country club” insiders . . . Well, whose fault is it if Republicans are perceived as “the party of the rich”?

If you want to see this dynamic in action, look no further than Delaware:

Within the party, the faithful have repeatedly rejected candidates for high office chosen by the party’s Greenville and west Wilmington elite.
Those leaders experienced a catastrophe 19 days ago, when a simmering revolt in the GOP rank and file erupted into full-blown mutiny. Religious conservative Christine O’Donnell whipped moderate party icon Mike Castle in the U.S. Senate primary. The leadership’s other choice, Greenville businesswoman and heiress Michele Rollins, suffered a defeat to Rehoboth Beach developer Glen Urquhart in the primary for Castle’s House seat.

(Note the significance: While Delaware GOP chairman Tom Ross was trying to get his buddy Castle elected to the Senate seat, Ross and other party insiders also backed the blueblood Rollins as Castle’s replacement in the House. When Urquhart won the House primary, Ross’s buddies at NRCC signaled they wouldn’t lift a finger to help the winner — “threw him under the bus,” as Adam Brickley said.)

Some veteran Republicans say the leadership has long been headed for a clash with disaffected voters, particularly those south of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal — the state’s symbolic dividing line between north and south — who resent the moderate statewide candidates handpicked by a small cadre of northern party leaders, among them Castle himself.
“This has been brewing for some time,” said former state vice chairman Vance Phillips of Laurel, one of Delaware’s southernmost towns. “The perception has been that the party has force-fed the rank and file Democrat-lite candidates.”
Albert Jackson, a former Delaware delegate to the national GOP convention, said he stopped being an active party member years ago because its leaders are more interested in catering to wealthy business leaders — whose goal is lower taxes and fewer regulations — than building up the party to win elections.
“There’s no new ideas,” Jackson said. “Everything has been the way the Greenville crowd wanted. It’s a sorry group that can’t count, can’t recruit and can’t handle competition from within. It’s been that way for many years and election cycles.”
Jackson said the problem with the party is typified by people like Priscilla Rakestraw — the party’s national committeewoman for the past 35 years and a resident of west Wilmington — who have been in power too long and displayed little imagination in trying to expand the Delaware GOP.
Rakestraw and other party leaders contend they have not lost touch with their voters, noting that the ultra-conservative tea party movement has run GOP congressional candidates out of office not only in Delaware but in Utah, Alaska, Nevada and other states.

(This accusation that the Tea Party is “ultra-conservative” replicates decades of attacks by GOP elites on the party’s grassroots. For nearly half a century, Republican insiders have counseled a go-along-to-get-along stance toward liberalism, whereas the rank-and-file have pushed the party to offer what Phyllis Schafly famously called “A Choice, Not an Echo.”)

[Rakestraw] said the leaders have chosen moderates like Castle — who had won 12 straight statewide elections before the Senate primary — because they are the party’s best hope for victory in Delaware, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 110,000, a number that has grown steadily in recent years.

(This claim — that moderates offer the “best chance” for Republicans –infuriates grassroots conservatives. Like other GOP insiders, Rakestraw gets the causation backward. When Republicans don’t stand for anything, when they offer milquetoast candidates who can’t or won’t articulate the party’s principles, a registration shift toward Democrats is a logical consequence. If no one in the GOP is speaking up for conservative principles, where will voters hear that message? And if people want to elect liberals, why settle for Liberal Lite?)

Rakestraw bristled at the notion that a “moneyed elite” anoint candidates, saying they have favorites but delegates from all corners of Delaware vote on endorsements at the party’s annual convention. “There’s no way I could control 300-plus delegates,” she said.
Basil Battaglia, a west Wilmington resident who was the party’s chairman from 1998 to 2000 and has helped lead Castle’s campaigns, agreed.
“Nobody is forcing candidates on anybody,” he said. “Nobody is trying to exclude them. We try to have a big tent, and everybody has an opportunity.”

Which is, of course, a lie. Whenever I talk about this blueblood-insider problem in the GOP, I hear from people who have run head-on into the “country club” attitude. Not long ago, I spoke to a rather well-known conservative journalist who recalled the reaction when, as a high-school Goldwater supporter during the 1964 campaign, he showed up at the local GOP headquarters and offered to volunteer: “Volunteer? They’d never had a volunteer before!”

Fired-up conservatives who try to get involved in Republican politics at the local level often find that their participation is unwelcome by the insiders, who evidently feel threatened by grassroots enthusiasm.

Fortunately, some conservatives persist despite such discouragement. Tea Party activists have shown that they can beat the country-club insiders and, if these grassroots activists will just stick to it, this might be a Change We Can Believe In.


9 Responses to “How Rich Republican Insiders Help Destroy the Party’s Grassroots Enthusiasm”

  1. Bob Zee
    October 4th, 2010 @ 8:42 pm

    YUP, and 2012 is going to be even worse. The country clubbers are already lining up with Romney/Gingrich/Daniels and will push any of them as long as they can stop Palin. The good ole boys do not want her putting the breaks on their pork filled corruption fest.

    I am not going to let them do it without a fight!

  2. DaveO
    October 4th, 2010 @ 5:54 pm

    The TEA Party’s success at exchanging establishment candidates for their own at the national level is great. What I haven’t found reported are the many battles for street, ward, and precinct captains – those who get out the vote on Election Day, and who vote for the state party leaders and staff. The established GOPers are, by definition, generally blind to what’s going on around them, and biased against action.

    If the TEA Party is winning those battles, and continues to win, there’ll be no Romney, Gingrich, or Daniels. The fight will be between Governors Palin and Huckabee in 2012.