The Obama presidency has been a golden era for right-wing kookery. Many aspects of this kookery, like gold fetishism or threats to default on the national debt, are simply too esoteric to filter into the general public and haven’t hurt the party’s image. Where Republicans have suffered damage is when their kook beliefs wander into the terrain of social issues, which hinge less on specialized knowledge, and the nuttiness is apparent to all. They keep throwing away winnable elections in this manner, and they may be about to do it again in Virginia.
Over the weekend, Virginia Republicans nominated as their lieutenant governor E.W. Jackson, whom media reports have delicately described as a “firebrand.” Jackson is a full-service nut. He’s proclaimed that “the idea that Barack Obama is a Christian is laughable,” urged voters to send him back to Indonesia, and suggested, “There’s a lot of argument – is he a Muslim. I can tell you this: He certainly does have a lot of affection and favor for Islam.”
Jackson’s most politically controversial pronouncements involve homosexuality, where he has proven decidedly immune to the moderating currents washing over much of his party. He has gone beyond opposition to letting gays marry or serve openly in the military, linking homosexuality with pedophilia and calling gays “frankly very sick people,” among numerous choice epithets.
Jackson’s place on the Republican ticket reflects, among other things, the party’s desperate search for African-Americans who can validate them as the party of non-racism, or better still, of anti-racism, in contrast with the alleged racism of the Democrats. The Republican demand for black candidates has soared under Obama, but the supply has not increased. (African-Americans account for about 13 percent of the electorate, and about 96 percent of them voted for Obama, leaving black Republicans to account for about half a percent of the electorate.) As one might expect in the face of such an imbalance between supply and demand, quality has plunged. Like Herman Cain, Ben Carson, and Allan West, Jackson has never held elected office at any level before being elevated to national status.
Gay rights has turned into a particular dilemma for the GOP. Two or three decades ago, few states could be found where a candidate would pay a serious price for hating gays. But denunciation of homosexuality — and, increasingly, even staunch opposite to gay rights — is becoming a major political liability. And yet, while most Republican elites would like their party to abandon gay-bashing, large chunks of the party base vociferously disagree.
Socially moderate (or at least politically shrewd) Republicans would like to steer their base away from nominees who say that gays “want to destroy the very faith which established this nation.” But these sorts of beliefs still command enough conservative support that party leaders can’t call them unacceptable bigotry, the way party leaders were able to denounce the Birchers 60 years ago.
One political ramification of Jackson’s nomination is that Republicans are needlessly risking their chances at a governorship in which they ought to stand at least even chances of winning. Virginia may lean slightly Democratic in presidential years, but its gubernatorial elections occur in odd years, with a lower turnout that’s disproportionately old, white, and conservative. Another ramification is that figures like Jackson help to define the party’s image in a swing state.
But the most important thing figures like Jackson signal is that the Republican Party continues to regularly nominate for statewide office people who appear to be stark raving mad. The radicalization of the party does not manifest itself mainly in the Jacksons and the Bachmanns and the Rand Pauls. They do, however, serve as an important signpost — they are in close enough ideological contact with the center of the party that the GOP mainstream is, while not insane, still dangerously radical. The party has become a frighteningly efficient mechanism for injecting fanaticism and paranoia into the political mainstream.