In a crazy campaign season, who’s craziest of all? Using The Daily Beast’s Election Oracle and 9 other factors, John Avlon, author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America, discovers the 15 Senate candidates scoring highest on our new Wingnut Index.
Somehow, 2010 has turned out to be the year of the Wingnut. An unprecedented array of far out—and mostly far-right—candidates have won closed partisan primaries and now have a real shot at entering the nation's most deliberative body—the Senate. But how can we quantify the crazy?
In the spirit of rankings that determine candidates' ideological or special-interest adherence, we have come up with our own Wingnut Index as a way of measuring the extremism of Senate candidates this year. (Subsequent rankings of congressional and gubernatorial candidates will be coming every Monday until the election.) The 15 Senate candidates who earned enough points to grab top slots on the Wingnut Index reflect roughly one-quarter of the total candidates running this year—a fair measure of the extremes' influence on our politics today.
In the 10 areas measured, we have reached for binary criteria whenever possible, such as whether the candidate subscribes to the conspiracy theories of being a "birther" or a 9/11 truther, or whether they have compared their political opponents to either Nazis or communists. Evidence of either Bush Derangement Syndrome or Obama Derangement Syndrome was included in the general category of fearmongering.
Hyper-partisan, special-interest-driven voting records were taken into account when possible—for example, candidates who received a 100 percent rating from the Family Research Council or a 100 percent rating from what could be considered their opposite interest group on the left, the AFS ratings by the Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees. (In the interest of full disclosure, Barbara Boxer's 99 rating was rounded up for inclusion.)
We have measured incidents in which candidates have been called out for lying by tracking their ratings on Politifact, which describes their respective misstatements as either "False" or the dreaded "Pants-on Fire." Another criteria is the number of appearances on the inspired Web aggregator Fark.com, which tracks absurd, hypocritical, or unintentionally hilarious statements from candidates on both the right and left.
RINO hunting and DINO hunting are Wingnut hobbies and as one measure of that impulse we added points for those backed by the Club for Growth or its comparably small liberal corollary, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. Both groups target centrists in their own party. We've also used The Daily Beast's Election Oracle software to track which candidates have the term "wingnut" attached to them the most in digital grassroots debate.
But much of what makes a candidate a Wingnut resists easy quantification. Ranking extreme policy proposals is somewhat subjective. Given the sheer tonnage of fearmongering, false choices, and conspiracy theories, it's difficult to measure the relative weight of the bullshit thrown around this election season. We've offered up representative "Twilight Zone" quotes at the end of each gallery to give a good example of the tone that helped land them on this list.
In this Wingnut Index, candidates who've never held any elective office—like Christine O'Donnell or Alvin Greene—have a relative advantage over candidates with voting records (don't worry, thanks to public statements, both made the cut). Likewise, the Wingnut Index doesn't include senators who might simply be committed liberals or conservatives—for example, Russ Feingold or Chuck Grassley. It's not ideology itself but ideological intolerance that is at issue. Civility and a commitment to reaching across the aisle are not Wingnut impulses.
Gallery: The 15 Highest-Ranked Wingnuts
• Election Oracle PredictionsDespite our attempt to be genuinely fair and balanced in the selection criteria, it was perhaps inevitable that this list would lean decidedly right this year. Parties out of power can more easily be dominated to angry ideological absolutists absent the responsibilities of governing. The conservative populist movement is now surging within the Republican Party and winning primaries. Populists in the Democratic Party may be loud but they are not that influential in terms of actual representation in Senate candidates (this will change when we look at Congress next week). For example, while three GOP Senate candidates rank among the birthers—and one of them, Maryland's hapless Eric Wargotz, didn't even make the list—there are no Democrats running for Senate who embraced truther conspiracies in the Bush era. "Those are the facts," as H.L. Mencken once said, "and I'm sorry to have the Babylonian indecency of printing them."
So take this list as it's intended—an attempt to measure the rise of extremism in our politics, and the candidates who have used that game plan to get to the precipice of elected power.
Research by Denver Nicks
John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and a CNN contributor. 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.