Bullying Behind GOP "Racist" Win

Audra Shay, accused of endorsing racial slurs and hate, was elected to lead the Young Republicans yesterday. More shocking, reveals John Avlon, were the tactics: sexual innuendos, voter intimidation, near-fisticuffs.

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Audra Shay, accused of endorsing racial slurs and hate, was elected to lead the Young Republicans yesterday. More shocking, reveals John Avlon, were the tactics: sexual innuendos, voter intimidation, near-fisticuffs. Avlon is the author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America.

Read The Daily Beast's recent coverage of the Audra Shay controversy, including John Avlon's early reporting and Meghan McCain's thoughts.

The Young Republicans faced a stark choice at their convention in Indianapolis yesterday as they chose their next leader: a center-right twentysomething interested in greater outreach, or a self-described “true conservative” who is almost 40 and spent last week dealing with Daily Beast reports about her beliefs, which are, at best, often hateful, and at worst, downright racist. The delegates, in a vote of 470-415, chose the latter.

Perhaps less remarkable than the outcome–new Young Republicans Chairman Audra Shay bragged on her Facebook page that she had pledges from the majority of delegate going in–was how the vote played out. Yesterday’s election was closed to members of the press, but The Daily Beast has pulled together an account of the vote, and the runup to it, and the details are shocking. Some highlights:

  • Shay’s opponent, Rachel Hoff, was the subject of an ugly sexual innuendo whisper campaign that questioned her reasons for supporting civil unions.
  • Shay’s electoral slate, dubbed Team Renewal, battled desperately–some likened it to intimidation–and, ultimately, successfully to block a motion that would have allowed delegates to cast their votes by secret ballot, for fear they’d lose.
  • Near-fistfights on the floor, and finally something of a boycott, as some of Hoff’s slate of candidates lower on the ticket chose to remove their names from the ballot after her defeat.

“They just took a vote that may have set the party back 30 years,” said the co-founder of HipHopRepublican.com, Lenny McAllister, speaking from the floor of the Hyatt convention hall. “They just voted for a candidate who has a demonstrated tolerance for racial intolerance. She has joked about lynching and then claimed to be a victim. As a black man, I still don’t see what’s funny about that.”

The Daily Beast’s revelations about the 38-year-old Shay over the past week–most notably, her positive response eight minutes after a friend likened the Obama administration to “a bunch of coons”–hovered over the convention, according to participants. "The convention was chaos because of the controversy," said one delegate. Her younger opponent, Rachel Hoff, became the reform alternative to Shay’s candidacy, but as Hoff got traction, an ugly online whisper campaign against her began. An anonymously built temporary Web site mentions Hoff’s alleged involvement in improperly notarized absentee ballots for South Dakota Senator John Thune, but quickly stoops lower. Hoff’s support for same-sex civil unions seems to be the real scandal, expressed in lil’ Lee Atwater tones:

Unfortunately, it doesn't end there with Hoff: As one of only a very few Young Republicans nationwide in favor of Civil Unions, Rachel Hoff attempted to convince the YRNF in 2007 to adopt a stance IN FAVOR OF CIVIL UNIONS. Although Rachel was not wearing a dress like her female counterparts, but her typical suite (sic) , her attempt was met with ridicule and frustration. It was overwhelmingly shot down and left the idea in many delegates minds of: Why would Rachel Hoff support Civil Unions?

Note the all-caps for her stand IN FAVOR OF CIVIL UNIONS, a brave stance entirely consistent with the party’s stated belief in individual freedom (and well short of conservative icon Dick Cheney’s support for gay marriage). And then there’s the weird 1920’s-era anti-feminist dig at her for “not wearing a dress like her female counterparts.” And the last sentence, with all the subtlety of a Tom DeLay sledgehammer. It’s an exceptionally ugly piece of insinuation and propaganda.

Nevertheless, the delegates, ranging in age from 18 to 40, who streamed into the Hyatt Regency ballroom yesterday amid an atmosphere described by one attendee as “dark and tense,” said that Hoff, who served as director of media relations and led the Next Level slate, had a good chance to win. “Very, very close,” was how one delegate termed it in the hours leading up to the vote.

The process, it turned out, took about eight hours, and it was dominated by a parliamentary maneuver to cast ballots privately, rather a verbal roll call. (The irony that the “true conservative” slate was pulling a card check and fighting secret ballots, while they vociferously support mandatory secret ballots for unions, seemed lost on them.) Pandemonium ensued. Fistfights nearly broke out between the two camps, and a Hoff supporter from the Oklahoma delegation, who was handing out fliers protesting Shay’s Facebook comments, had to be physically removed. The high-stakes, high-tension vote reflected an awareness of its now-national implications, and the physical drama between the competing slates' supporters recalled the smoke-filled early-television convention of 1952, featuring skirmishes between Robert Taft's conservatives and Eisenhower's centrist supporters. “I believe that people were intimidated,” said North Carolina delegate John Ross. “Without a secret ballot, many people did not have the opportunity to vote their conscience.”

In the end, Shay, dressed in a sundress, trumped Hoff, who was dressed in a business suit. Calls for party unity were announced and ignored as many of Hoff’s slate then resigned their races rather than lose along factional lines or serve alongside Shay. Already there are talks of reformers, in protest, breaking off to form a new branch of the Young Republicans dedicated to restoring the GOP’s long-lost reputation as the Party of Lincoln. “I am not disappointed, I am not disgruntled–I am disheartened,” said Lenny McAllister. “As I look around the convention I see a room full of many honorable Republicans who want to move this party forward. But Audra Shay is not a leader, she is a divider. It’s a terrible message to send at a time when we have an African-American president and growing diversity across our country.”

John P. Avlon is the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. He writes a weekly column for The Daily Beast. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.