We have just gone through two weeks of complete and total governmental chaos that, thankfully, is over — if temporarily. What is disconcerting is that at least in the early going there doesn’t seem to be that much of a penalty being paid for this extremism.
The Republicans got almost exactly what they would have gotten had they reached a deal two weeks ago — no better, not worse. So from a policy perspective, the Republicans were not at all hurt by this shutdown. The politics are trickier. The polling has shown Republicans to be suffering greatly, which might encourage more Democrats to challenge House Republicans. Because now is the time to get in a House race -– waiting much longer would make the odds of winning even tougher — this polling upswing for Democrats could prove valuable next November.
We saw an election on Wednesday, however, that should make Democrats hesitate before popping the champagne corks. Even more important, this election demonstrates how deeply divided we are as a nation—or at least how strongly Republican, Republicans have become.
New Jersey held a special election Wednesday to replace Sen. Frank Lautenberg, who died while in office. Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a Democrat, faced former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan, a Republican. Although he lost, Lonegan’s campaign tells us a lot about the current political situation.
Steve Lonegan ran as a Ted Cruz-Sarah Palin-Tea Party Republican. Palin even campaigned with him last weekend. Lonegan is on record as virulently anti-gay and anti-choice and he also opposes Social Security, Medicare, and federal payments to Hurricane Sandy victims. Just this weekend, he was encouraging Republicans not to re-open the government. The New York Times’ endorsement of Booker does a good job summing him up. The Philadelphia Inquirer and the New Jersey Star Ledger offered similar endorsements of Booker and condemnations of Lonegan.
Two incidents in the campaign went beyond typical politics in revealing Lonegan’s character. When Cory Booker was asked about his sexual orientation, he told reporters it shouldn’t matter and that he didn’t want people voting for him on the assumption he was straight. Lonegan responded that he couldn’t understand Booker’s position. “‘It’s kind of weird,’” Lonegan said, adding: “As a guy, I personally like being a guy.”
Even worse, this Monday, Lonegan held a press conference to say that Booker didn’t live in Newark, an assertion based on a patently absurd video. For those who might have any doubt about Booker’s abode, watch this Sundance Channel documentary that followed him around Newark, including in and out of his apartment in, yes, Newark.
Steve Lonegan is, in short, everything that is wrong with American politics. He not only possesses extreme views, he also exhibits a nastiness of spirit and a willingness to launch attacks without facts.
Yet, this didn’t seem to make any difference in the election’s outcome. Lonegan lost but not by as much as one would have thought. In fact, he did better in New Jersey than Mitt Romney, who had his shortcomings but clearly wasn’t extreme. Lonegan got 44.2 percent of the vote Wednesday, besting Mitt Romney’s 40.6 percent in 2012. That suggests that Republicans could care less how bad Lonegan was. It is true that Booker’s campaign was not as well run as the President’s, but that didn’t mean much to voters either.
Based on these results, it would be difficult to find any voters who voted for Romney and Booker, or Obama and Lonegan, clearly not enough to be anything more than a curiosity. Only two counties in the state switched parties from the 2012 presidential race, with Lonegan winning the one tied county and picking up one other county.
In short, as far as I can tell, there was no political consequence to being as extreme or as nasty as Steve Lonegan. There also was no wave of moderate voters angry about the shutdown and looking to punish Republicans. There was just a whole lot of everyone to his or her own corner and apathy.
Yes, it was a strange time for an election and, no, special elections are not all that predictive. Still, it does raise the question of why Lonegan’s awfulness did not come into play. Why did he do as well as he did? Is it possible that voters did not know? If so, that speaks to the death of mass communication and the established news media as a means of information gathering. Lonegan made no effort to hide his views and they were reported extensively. If people knew but didn’t care, it speaks to the fact that at least Republicans are now willing to vote for any Republican, no matter how extreme.
This harkens back to Connecticut’s 2010 election. With the exception of the Governor’s race, all the other statewide races had almost exactly the same margins, including the contentious McMahon-Blumenthal contest. Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents voted for Democrats, Republicans voted for Republicans, without much regard for the individual candidate. In Connecticut, a candidate in a high-profile race could still pay a penalty for extremism. But Democrats need to be wary and do a better job engaging voters. Despite all the swirling negative energy about Republicans, it didn’t bring Democrats to the polls. Cory Booker only got 34 percent of the votes that the President got in 2012, while someone as noxious as Steve Lonegan got 39 percent of the Romney vote. A 5 percent differential in turnout is a lot when there is no evidence of crossover voting.
Democrats can’t count on a backlash against extremism as the key to victory for the party, either nationally or within a given state. It can be a leg of a stool, but it can’t be the whole chair. It is not just Republican politicians who are extremists but also, sadly, many if not most Republican voters. Sometimes the blame does have to fall on the voters.
Jason Paul of West Hartford is a partner in a campaign consulting company called What’s Next. He is also a student at the University of Connecticut Law School.