This Has Happened Before

Picture a candidate who acts in ways that appear unsuitable for high office, makes outlandish claims and never walks them back, then blithely refuses to acknowledge or cannot understand that some people find what they say offensive. Sound familiar? Sure it does – except I’m not talking about who you think I am.

In 2010, Nevada Assemblywoman Sharron Angle was the Republican nominee against vulnerable senator and Majority Leader Harry Reid. How did Angle approach her inherently winnable contest? By insisting a “militant terrorist situation” existed in the city of Dearborn, Michigan because it had been taken over by sharia law, and claiming that the porous Canadian border posed a security threat from terrorist infiltration. A number of prominent establishment Republicans defected and endorsed Reid, who comfortably won re-election.

Two years later, Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock upset establishment icon Richard Lugar in the Republican primary, turning a safe seat into a competitive contest, which Mourdock managed to lose by taking unforgiving positions on immigration, Social Security and abortion, stating that “even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that is something that God intended to happen.” At the same time, Missouri Republican senate nominee Todd Aiken was losing a winnable contest against incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill by offering his personal medical opinion that in the event of something called “legitimate rape” the body shuts down and prevents pregnancy.

Then there’s Christine O’Donnell, the Delaware Republican who stunned popular former governor Mike Castle in the Republican primary and proceeded to run a catastrophic general election campaign against Chris Coons, the Democrat who had been appointed to replace Joe Biden and perhaps the luckiest senator in the country. I mean, how many incumbents draw an opponent who has to defend herself against charges that she’s a witch?

These failed candidates all took positions far outside mainstream public opinion with wild appeal to the primary electorate, then could not or would not moderate them in the general election either because they believed what they said or were boxed in by a history of controversial statements. And because what they said was controversial it drove news coverage and defined the election.

The upcoming presidential contest promises to be unlike any other, but if there is a roadmap for what to expect it is probably contests like these where the preferences of primary voters differed greatly from the preferences of everyone else. Now that reactionary voters have wrested control of the national Republican Party from conservative elites, we are about to experience a real-time experiment in what happens when a candidate with broad appeal to a segment of the population, no impulse control and a flair for drawing attention to himself by making outrageous and inflammatory statements makes contact with the rest of the country.

This is what worries traditional Republicans. And it should.