Why Republicans Have Gotten Away With Craziness This Year

We don't know if Joni Ernst is going to be the next Senator from Iowa, but one thing we can say is that Democrats failed to paint her as a radical Tea Partier with dangerous ideas. (Actually, there's another thing we can say: her replacing liberal lion Tom Harkin would have to be the widest ideological swing in a Senate seat from one Congress to the next in a long time.) The question is, why? And more broadly, why have they failed to do that with any of the GOP Senate candidates running this year? It's not like this is a bunch of moderates. One explanation is that the establishment triumphed by weeding out the nutcases:

National Republicans managed this year to snuff out every bomb-throwing insurgent who tried to wrest a Senate nod away from one of their favored candidates. They spent millions against baggage-laden activists such as Matt Bevin, the Louisville investor who mounted a ham-fisted challenge to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel, the conservative upstart who imperiled a safe seat by nearly ousting longtime Sen. Thad Cochran.

The confrontational approach—by both party committees and outside super PACs—represented a sharp departure from the GOP’s cautious strategy in the 2010 and 2012 cycles, when cartoonishly inept nominees aligned with the tea party lost the party as many as five Senate seats.

All that's true, but it's not just that they kept crazy people from winning primaries, they also kept primary winners' craziness from undoing their campaigns. Ernst has managed to skate away from accountability for her more disturbing ideas, like her embrace of the "Agenda 21" conspiracy theory or her statement that she might have to start shooting government officials if they trample her rights. That's not to mention her beliefs that there should be no federal minimum wage and that weapons of mass destruction were actually found in Iraq.

And it isn't like Democrats haven't tried to convince voters that Ernst is a radical. So why hasn't she, like Todd Akin and Sharron Angle before her, gotten all kinds of negative attention for her comments that ultimately drove her to defeat?

There are many factors, like the fact that the Republican party has stuck by her, that had an impact. But I think the biggest reason is that the media just haven't reported on it very much. Ernst's Agenda 21 conspiricizing may have gotten attention from liberal bloggers, but it didn't get much notice in the Iowa media, or from national political reporters. In contrast, when Bruce Braley told attendees at a fundraiser that if Republicans took the Senate, the Judiciary Committee would be chaired by "a farmer from Iowa without a law degree," meaning the state's senior senator, Chuck Grassley, it was huge news. The Des Moines Register, the state's largest paper (and one that Ernst complains is biased against her) did editorialize once against Ernst's radical and constitutionally demented views on "nullification," but that's the only substantive article about the topic that comes up when you search the paper's web site (though there are a few letters to the editor that mention it). On the other hand, when I searched for Braley's statement about Grassley being a farmer in the DMR, I got 79 hits.

While I haven't done a systematic analysis of the rest of Iowa or national media, that doesn't seem unrepresentative—I've seen the Grassley farmer thing mentioned many, many times in mainstream sources, but not Ernst's crazier beliefs. Perhaps it's because reporters are just tired of writing the "Republican candidate says extreme things" story. But I think it's also that the Braley "gaffes," whether it's implying that farmers are not necessarily the font of wisdom in all things, or being upset when his neighbor's chickens crap on his lawn, are personal in a way Ernst's statements aren't. They supposedly imply that Braley might be a bit of a jerk, whereas you can be friendly and nice and also believe the UN is coming to kick you off your land.

The trouble is that when we're talking about electing people to the nation's legislature, this is completely backward. The personal stuff is of only the tiniest importance, if any at all, while beliefs about the world are very relevant. Joni Ernst's ideas about the UN, about guns, and about the legal status of zygotes will actually make a difference in how she does her job, should she win. In contrast, unless Harry Reid has his chickens crap in Bruce Braley's Capitol Hill office just before a critical budget vote, I don't think that's going to really be an issue. But that's what the campaign coverage has focused on.

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