Cigar in hand, Rush Limbaugh spent a Sunday evening last month watching a CNN presidential town hall. As a hugely influential conservative talk radio host who helped Donald Trump win the White House, Limbaugh isn’t the kind of voter that the Democratic presidential hopefuls think they can reach with town-hall events.
But Limbaugh had to admit he was impressed by one of the candidates: South Bend Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
On his radio show a few days later, Limbaugh predicted that the “personable” Buttigieg would “make mincemeat” out of his primary rivals.
“There was no radicalism,” Limbaugh said.
Just a month later, Buttigieg is rising in the polls—and Limbaugh doesn’t like him anymore.
On April 1, the same day that Buttigieg announced that he had raised $7 million, Limbaugh told his audience that Buttigieg now had plenty of “radical ideas.” He went much further a day later, suggesting the millennial mayor’s recently deceased father, an expert on Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, had indoctrinated his son into communism.
“He grew up learning Gramsci and Marx and Engels,” Limbaugh said of the younger Buttigieg. “He didn’t grow up learning about Madison, Jefferson, and Washington.”
Limbaugh’s turn against Buttigieg reflected a swift turnaround by many popular right-wing commentators as Buttigieg has rode a wave of positive coverage, going from an interesting anomaly to surprisingly formidable fundraiser and potential presidential contender. On Thursday morning, he posted a video teasing a major 2020 announcement on April 14.
Buttigieg’s résumé and political instincts have appeal to conservatives in a way that has, at least temporarily, complicated right-leaning punditry that has found plenty to dislike about other Democratic candidates.
He’s a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who often speaks at length about his record of military service. He’s the mayor of a smaller post-industrial Midwestern city who focuses on issues with bipartisan appeal like infrastructure. He hasn’t been afraid to empathize with Trump voters who have been “left behind,” or criticize popular Republican punching-bags like Hillary Clinton. And he has largely attempted to avoid culture-war issues, even praising Chick-fil-A sandwiches.
Pressed with how to handle a gay military veteran who lacks the obvious political baggage of many of his primary opponents, some on the right have actually embraced Buttigieg, while others are honing their attacks.
Specifically, it seems, Buttigieg has most appealed to Trump-skeptical conservative and center-right pundits.
National Review writer Jim Geraghty admitted to having a “complicated and conflicted” impression of Buttigieg’s presidential candidacy. Prominent Trump critic and former Weekly Standard chief Bill Kristol dreamed of a general-election matchup between Buttigieg and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who is reportedly considering a primary challenge to Trump.
Other right-leaning pundits praised the mayor for not appearing over-eager to fight on the liberal side of the culture war.
Commentary’s Noah Rothman gushed that Buttigieg sounded like a libertarian on certain issues, and praised how the 37-year-old mayor has “steadfastly refused to become mired in the Democrats’ woke-off, and he’s managed to avoid engaging with his fellow presidential candidates in the culture war’s unwinnable arms race.” New York Times columnist David Brooks dedicated an entire column to Buttigieg’s appeal to voters who “don’t want to fight white identity politics with another kind of identity politics.”
Even some of the most vocal, far-right Trump boosters have praised the South Bend mayor’s campaign messaging, if not his policies.
During her show last weekend, Fox News host Jeanine Pirro and former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski both praised Buttigieg’s strategy of emphasizing a Democratic Party message that goes beyond simply criticizing Trump.
“I’ve got to tell you, why don’t some of the frontrunners do what this guy is talking about? Because he’s right,” she said.
“Pete’s message is probably the right one for the Democrats: Stop attacking Donald Trump, and go find something positive you can actually do for the country,” Lewandowski added.
Longshot candidates who break from party orthodoxy often become political tools for partisan pundits who want to undercut the frontrunners.
For example, over the past few months, Fox News host Tucker Carlson has occasionally defended Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) from attacks from Democrats skeptical of her stance on Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Potential presidential candidate Rep. Tim Ryan has also been praised by some on the right for his open criticism of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a frequent bogeywoman of right-wing media.
Past Democratic frontrunners have also found brief support among some center-right columnists. Brooks was fond enough of then-Sen. Barack Obama during the 2008 election that Politico launched a Brooks-O-Meter to track how positive or negative each column was about the Democratic candidate.
Right-wing pundits had already taken some shots at Buttigieg even before he started to gain ground in the primary, however. Fox News commentators have lumped Buttigieg in with other Democratic candidates who they believe are wrong about eliminating the electoral college and adding new Supreme Court justices in a “court-packing” move.
But as Buttigieg has climbed in the polls, negative coverage on much of the right has intensified, and certain lines of attack of emerged as conservative media experiences a whiplash-like effect in its treatment of the mayor.
On Tuesday, the Washington Examiner published a story about Buttigieg’s father’s Marxist views, which was soon picked up widely by prominent conservatives as a way to paint the younger Buttigieg as a committed communist.
Other, more fringe right-wing outlets have recently offered similar coverage. The Gateway Pundit, a pro-Trump blog prone to publishing conspiracy theories and unverified claims, mentioned Buttigieg for the first time Wednesday, calling his pro-abortion rights position “evil.”
Fox host Laura Ingraham devoted a segment of her show to Buttigieg on Tuesday, showing her audience clips of Buttigieg praise from MSNBC host Joe Scarborough and CNN commentator Ana Navarro—two center-right TV pundits whom the Trump grassroots view as traitors to the Republican Party.
“The coastal elites? I don’t think they’ve ever loved a Midwesterner as much as they love Pete,” Ingraham said.
The Fox primetime star also jabbed at Buttigieg’s mentions of his faith. “He says he’s a traditional Episcopalian, whatever that means these days,” she snarked.
Ingraham also picked up Limbaugh’s attack on Buttigieg about his father, attempting to connect the mayor to his “radical” dad’s views.
“Pete was close to his father, which you can expect, which will lead many voters to wonder how far the apple fell from the tree,” Ingraham remarked.
Ingraham closed with a stab at Buttigieg’s ability to speak at seven languages—the same fact that has helped make him a darling with more establishment, Trump-skeptical figures on the right.
“The ‘cool fact’ that ‘cool Pete’ speaks seven languages doesn’t change that socialism doesn’t work in any of them,” Ingraham said.
But even some of that negative coverage concedes some positive attributes to Buttigieg. A columnist on Trump-boosting website The Federalist argued that although he would never be president he is “jolly and substantive” and will have a “long and productive career” in politics.