‘It Left Me’

Texas Judge Carlo Key Flees the GOP: ‘These Are Not My Values’

Carlo Key sympathizes with Republican ideas but says the right wing has taken over—and it’s not a ‘party of inclusion.’ Jamelle Bouie on what the GOP can learn from the defection.

Carlo Key, a judge in Bexar County, Texas, has left the Republican Party, and he blames the Tea Party. “Rational Republican beliefs have given way to ideological character assassination,” says Key in a video announcing his switch to the Democratic Party, ahead of his reelection campaign. “Make no mistake, I have not left the Republican Party. It left me.”

Key’s big concern, like so many Americans who have voiced their disapproval of the GOP, is with values. His local party supported a San Antonio City Council member, Elisa Chan, who was caught making derisive comments about the local LGBT community, calling its members “disgusting” and “unfit to be parents.” As an elected official, Key was expected to attend a press conference where he—and others—would defend Chan. He couldn’t do it. “I got in my car,” said Key in an interview with The Daily Beast, “and I said, ‘I just can’t go. These are not my values.’”

Key said he sympathizes with Republican ideas and believes strongly in “fiscal and personal responsibility.” But he believes the right wing has taken hold of the party, he said, and doesn’t expect that to change in the near future. “If the Tea Party is going to be setting the agenda and setting the conversation, I don’t think [the Republican Party] is going to switch gears and become a party of inclusion or a party of acceptance,” he said.

National Republicans might not see Key’s defection as significant in the broader scheme of American politics, but it’s shocking nonetheless. If you’re young, tolerant, and have conservative instincts, there should be room for you in the GOP. Indeed, the aim of the Republican Party’s Growth and Opportunity Project report was to expand that space and build the GOP brand among voters who fit that description. “The Republican Party is one of tolerance and respect, and we need to ensure that the tone of our message is always reflective of these core principles,” says the report, emphasizing the need to present an inclusive message to minorities. Likewise, it urges Republicans to “change” their “tone” on “certain social issues that are turning off young voters.”

Making these changes wouldn’t give Republicans an advantage among young voters. As far as today’s cohort is concerned, the GOP’s deficit is largely baked in the cake. But the reforms are the kind that could stop the bleeding. Key’s departure is exactly what you would expect from a party that rejected these recommendations.

A larger example of what happens when a party embraces the forces that repelled Key from the GOP is the Virginia gubernatorial race, where arch-conservative Ken Cuccinelli is losing to Terry McAuliffe, a former Democratic fundraiser and novice politician. Most polls have Cuccinelli stuck below 40 percent, and at least one, from a conservative polling firm, has him behind by double digits. The reason, by and large, is his strident and divisive agenda on social issues. He’s categorically anti-abortion rights and openly hostile to LGBT Americans. Virginia isn’t a liberal state, but Virginians don’t want to elect an ideologue, and they’re acting accordingly.

According to a CNN survey released Tuesday, 64 percent of Americans say they have an unfavorable view of the Republican Party, an all-time high for the poll. And a Washington Post poll, also released Tuesday, shows congressional Republicans with a 77 percent disapproval rating. The GOP might have time to mitigate the electoral damage of its extremism and brinksmanship, but the hit to its reputation will linger. Carlo Key might not be the only Republican to switch sides.