The Plot to Purge GOP Moderates
A sect of hard-right Republicans is celebrating their loss in a New York House race—but that’s just the beginning of a plan to purge moderates. Benjamin Sarlin speaks to the ringleader.
Insurgent conservatives have declared all-out war on the Republican establishment, and Erick Erickson is helping to lead the charge.
Erickson, who runs the influential Web site RedState.com, drew fire on Wednesday from Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, after Erickson expressed glee over the outcome of New York’s hotly contested 23rd Congressional District race. With help from Sarah Palin and Dick Armey, Erickson had led the online charge to drive the GOP favorite, Dede Scozzafava, from the race, believing her to be too moderate. Erickson’s preferred candidate went on to lose to a Democrat—handing the GOP its first loss in this Adirondacks-based district in more than 100 years. Erickson nonetheless declared victory, saying he’d done “exactly what we set out to do—crush the establishment-based GOP candidate.”
Steele lashed out at the blogger, saying, “I don’t see a victory in losing seats.” But in an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast, Erickson said Steele’s comment indicates the RNC chairman doesn’t get the battle he’s in.
“I’m talking to my own side, rallying the troops to take action,” said Erickson. “I want to make things happen. I want to blow things up and get things done.”
“He and the establishment Republicans are playing a dangerous game equating conservatives and the Republican Party as the same thing,” he said. “There’s a break that’s needed to happen between that relationship, and I think [New York’s 23rd District] finally severed that relationship the way it needed to be severed.”
According to Erickson, while the party may need to tack left in its choice of candidates to regain some blue-state seats, Scozzafava was a special case in which “the Democrat had a more moderate record than the Republican.”
He had tough words for likely 2012 candidate Mitt Romney, who stayed neutral while former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty endorsed Conservative Party candidate Douglas Hoffman and Newt Gingrich backed Scozzafava.
“If he wants to sit on the fence and have it both ways on these issues, it’s going to cause a lot of people a lot of trouble,” he said.
Erickson’s campaign has led some progressive observers to daydream about the conservative base committing political suicide in an otherwise promising midterm elections by backing an array of unelectable right-wing candidates and third-party insurgents.
Already the right is refocusing attention on its next moderate target: Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, whose race against conservative state lawmaker Marco Rubio in the Senate primary is becoming a cause célèbre among the base. With promising moderate candidates facing conservative primary challengers in Senate races in Delaware, Illinois, and Connecticut as well, an all-out civil war could potentially hand Democrats an even larger majority in 2010.
• Eric Alterman: Why Democrats Are Smiling• Lee Siegel: New Jersey's Obama Wannabe• Mark McKinnon: The GOP Surge Isn't Obama's Fault• Peter Beinart: Behind the Democratic Wipeout• More Daily Beast contributors on the election aftermathErickson only added more fuel to the fire Tuesday night when he participated in a phone conference with Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) backing conservative Chuck DeVore over the more moderate ex-CEO of Hewlett Packard, Carly Fiorina, in California’s Senate primary. How pure could the party get and still compete in elections if the base wouldn’t tolerate moderate Republicans in ultra-liberal California?
Erickson, however, says the “purge” is largely exaggerated.
“I’m fine with Mark Kirk in Illinois, Mike Castle in Delaware, even Olympia Snowe and Sue Collins in Maine,” he said. “There are places where conservatives can’t win. My problem is where the right can win, the GOP should go right.”
As for California, running a conservative candidate is largely symbolic, Erickson said: “I don’t think anybody can win in California.”
• Michael Smerconish’s exclusive interview with purged moderate Dede Scozzafava Still, there’s plenty of evidence the New York campaign and conservative groups such as Erickson’s RedState, Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks, and the tea party movement are having an effect. On Wednesday, Kirk, a promising moderate candidate for Senate in deep-blue Illinois reportedly reached out to Palin for her endorsement, presumably out of fears of a Hoffman-esque distraction. Moderate former Rep. Rob Simmons (R-CT), a front-runner to take on embattled Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT) in Connecticut, has been speaking at tea party rallies and recently abandoned his support both for cap-and-trade and card check for unions. And after backing President Obama’s stimulus plan earlier this year, Crist is running ads saying, “The president has the same tired answer for every problem: to spend more of your money.”
Erickson, a former attorney, says he makes just enough from his RedState job to support his wife of nine years and two small children, but with his wife leaving work to become a stay-at-home mom this year, his activism is a financial stretch.
“It’s going to be rough here when she stops. We may cancel cable and live on beans and rice but I think we’re going to make it,” he said.
Although he frequently locks horns with Republican lawmakers, Erickson is an elected official himself: He’s one of two Republican members of Macon, Georgia’s 15-member city council. Governance has even led him to moderate some of his more doctrinaire conservative views, he said.
“I’m much more sympathetic now to Republican candidates who have been on city councils or county commissions and have voted to raise taxes, much more sympathetic then I would have been not being on council,” he said. “At some point with gas prices rising up, you can only cut so much.”
Still, at times his red-meat rhetoric has gotten him into trouble on the local and national stage. After he wrote on Twitter that retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter was “the only goatf---ing child molester to ever serve on the Supreme Court,” he told the local Macon Telegraph that he regretted the remark, although he “felt good at the time saying it.”
Erickson said he knows he sometimes crossed the line, “but at the same time you do want to excite and inspire on your own side.”
“I don’t view myself in a position where I’m trying to talk to the other side nicely and explain my case and convince them I’m right. I know I’m right,” he said. “I’m talking to my own side, rallying the troops to take action. I want to make things happen. I want to blow things up and get things done.”
Other notable incidents include Obama’s recent Nobel Peace Prize, which Erickson responded to by writing: “I did not realize the Nobel Committee had affirmative action quotas.” Asked about the GOP’s traditional difficulties with minority voters, Erickson said he hoped up-and-coming minority Republicans, such as Texas Senate candidate Michael Williams, who is black, and South Carolina gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley, who is Indian-American, could help rebrand the party without changing its policy positions.
“I think it really hurts the GOP to have the white guy talk about why affirmative action is wrong,” he said. “It’s much better to have someone other than the white guy explain that.”
Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.