By John Rolfe / Red Hook, N.Y.
Given the baleful state of American politics, it should come as no surprise that Mitch McConnell attracted skunk cabbages and rotten tomatoes from the party faithful for realistically stating that “Candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome" of the November midterms.
He was speaking about Republican prospects of retaking the House and Senate and didn’t mention any names, but he didn’t have to. The GOP’s rightward rush into delusional extremism during the Trump Era has created a clown boxcar full of alarming candidates. Fortunately (for them), persistent, soaring inflation and a rapidly tanking stock market will very likely save the hides of these ordinarily (is there an ordinary anymore?) unsavory choices:
Mehmet Oz (U.S. Senate, Pa.): Celebrity easily trumps lack of legislative experience these days, so the former host of the Dr. Oz TV show benefits from the kind of star power that Donald Trump brought down the golden escalator in 2015. Oprah Winfrey has yet to retract her bestowment of the title “America’s Doctor” on Oz, despite his fondness for promoting dubious remedies like hydroxychloroquine for Covid and raspberry ketones for losing weight. In 2015, a group of prominent physicians sought to have him removed from the faculty of Columbia University’s medical school, charging that “he has manifested an egregious lack of integrity by promoting quack treatments and cures in the interest of personal financial gain.”
Those unfortunate facts have not threatened Oz’s chances of victory quite as much as his viral lament about the soaring price of crudities, which exposed him as the kind of wealthy (he owns seven mansions), elitist snob the party’s base professes to loathe even if its Dear Leader eats his pizza with a knife and fork and lives in a gaudy palace in Florida.
Nonetheless, thanks to his Marxist (Groucho, not Karl) “whatever it is (the Democrats want), I’m against it,” stance, Oz still has more than a puncher’s chance of beating his opponent, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman.
Kari Lake (Governor, Ariz.): A former TV anchor who has as much governmental experience as Dr. Oz (none), is proving to be quite the MAGA buffoon. Lake recently announced “some really painful, hurtful news” about her Democratic opponent: Ariz. Secretary of State Katie Hobbs fought in 2018 to keep the Pledge of Allegiance, the national anthem, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution out of public school classrooms in their state. (What, not Mom and apple pie, too?)
The only problem was that Hobbs had merely objected to the addition of “In God We Trust” and “Ditat Deus” (God Enriches) to an already approved bill that included the Constitution, Declaration, Pledge, etc., as perfectly fine for display in the classrooms in question. (Hobbs had concerns about adding religious wording.) Republican strategist Chuck Coughlin was left to sigh, “It’s disappointing that somebody that’s running for governor can’t read a state statute, especially for someone who claimed they triple-checked their facts.”
Fellow Republican Wes Gullett, who served as chief of staff to former Gov. Fife Symington, lamented, “That’s why we have campaigns, because we see if people are qualified to be governor. Reading bills is a qualification of being governor. You have to know what a bill says, how a bill changes, how a bill becomes a law. Those are fundamentals that Kari Lake doesn’t understand.”
That doesn’t matter to many voters. Recent polls say Lake and Hobbs are neck-and-neck.
Herschel Walker (U.S. Senate, Ga.): The former NFL and University of Georgia football star is, like Lake, a paragon of the “I’ll vote for a crate of kumquats as long as it isn’t Democrat” mentality that could carry Republicans to glory in November.
You’re probably well aware by now of Walker’s observation about global warming: “Since we don’t control the air, our good air decided to float over to China’s bad air, so when China gets our good air, their bad air got to move. So it moves over to our good air space. Then, now, we got to clean that back up.”
Or his, “A lot of money, it’s going to trees … We’ve got enough trees. Don’t we have enough trees around here?”
Pulitizer-Prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr. noted that Walker seems almost proud of his ignorance, which is no disadvantage in an age when millions of voters scorn expertise and consider honesty entirely optional (as long as it’s their candidate being dishonest). Walker has lied about having a criminal justice degree and experience in the F.B.I. Even so, he may turn out to be too much of a stretch for too many voters as polls say he’s trailing his opponent, junior Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock, by five points.
Blake Masters (U.S. Senate, Ariz.): He’s got Lake’s bona fides — particularly Trump’s endorsement — and is closing in on his popular opponent, Mark Kelly. Like many GOP candidates who’ve gotten hip to the fact that they’ve stirred up a hornet’s nest on the left and very possibly in the center, Masters has begun downplaying his once fervent stolen election and abortion ban talk in favor of a more reassuring moderate sheep’s outfit like the one Glenn Youngkin donned in his successful bid to become Virginia’s governor.
Nonetheless, the McConnell-linked Senate Leadership Fund super PAC recently yanked nearly $10 million worth of ads for Masters. Perhaps it was in retaliation for Masters uttering unflattering criticism of McConnell, and calling for the minority leader’s replacement. After winning his primary and finding himself in need of McConnell’s support, Masters took a page from the minority leader’s time-tested volume of waffle recipes and started sounding much more conciliatory. Imagine that.
J.D. Vance (U.S. Senate, Ohio): Locked in a tight, pivotal race, Vance is a poster boy for the McConnell-Graham-McCarthy brand of weasel hypocrisy: You’re against Trump, you’re for him, you’re against him. Just check the windsock outside.
These days, Vance (a venture capitalist, conservative commentator, and author of the memoir Hillbilly Elegy) is for all for Trump, having tacked furiously away from his growing and likely fatal faux liberal image in deep red Ohio. Now backed by a Who’s Who of MAGA stars including the Big Man himself plus Marjorie Taylor Greene, Josh Hawley and billionaire Peter Thiel, one of the right wing’s most robust cash cows, Vance’s platform of battling inflation should help moderate voters overlook his more strident positions on a host of culture war issues.
Donald Bolduc (U.S. Senate, N.H.): The retired brigadier general is yet another one of at least 10 shamelessly flip-flopping fish on the national dock. He’s gone from trumpeting Trump’s Big Lie and conspiracy theories before his primary win to voicing craftily nuanced BS now that he has to win over voters outside his party.
“The narrative that the election was stolen, it does not fly up here in New Hampshire for whatever reason,” Bolduc said on Fox News. “What does fly is that there was significant fraud, and it needs to be fixed.”
It’s just a naked attempt to have it both ways while hoping that no one thinks about it while the price at the gas pump gives them agita.
Doug Mastriano (Governor, Pa.): A Jan. 6 participant (though he claims that he didn’t actually enter the Capitol during the festivities) and fierce election denier, state senator Mastriano urged Pennsylvania’s legislature to award its Electoral College votes to Trump after the state went for Biden. In 2019, while sponsoring an abortion ban, Mastriano argued that women who terminate their pregnancies, and the doctors who perform the procedure, should be prosecuted for murder. More recently, he has been an avid opponent of Covid masking and vaccine mandates.
Also accused of racism, Mastriano is certainly a big ol’ slice of MAGA red meat, but despite Trump’s endorsement, his campaign is sputtering in purple Pennsylvania, forcing him to resort to 40 days of prayer in hope that the Almighty (God, not Trump) will intervene on his behalf.
Lauren Boebert (U.S. House, C0): Likely to win re-election due to staunch support in her district, Boebert is Marjorie Taylor Greene’s equally unsavory twin: not as a big a loose cannon loaded with comic relief (e.g. Nancy Pelosi’s “Gazpacho police”), just more sinister. An unabashed Christian Nationalist, she has declared that she’s sick of “this separation of church and state stuff” and committed to influencing the nation as her God commandeth folks like her to do. She also defiantly packs heat.
Boebert is proof that it takes a special talent to fail in MAGA country, but former Rep. Madison Cawthorn (NC) succeeded at doing just that last May. He was denied a second term by a primary defeat … not because he offended mainstream voters or anyone of any decency for that matter. He offended his party by claiming he’d been invited by fellow congressmen (some of them presumably Republican) to cocaine and sex parties in Washington. So the GOP machinery worked overtime to can him, running ads that claimed Cawthorn will “lie about anything” and is “an attention-seeking embarrassment.”
Sounds a lot like the GOP’s standard bearer in Mar-a-Lago, but pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.
The GOP needs to win in nine districts that Biden carried in 2020 and take five seats in the House in order to secure a majority. Thanks to gerrymandering in Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Ohio, Tennessee and Texas, Republicans are almost guaranteed to grab at least three no matter how kooky or deficient they sound.
Perhaps sensing that the party’s historically guaranteed slam dunk — in the 22 midterm elections from 1934 to 2018, the incumbent President's party has lost an average of 28 House seats and four in the Senate — is in danger of going pear shaped due to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, Republicans are trying promote at least some sensible candidates. However, the prerequisites for candidacy in many places are still blind allegiance to Trump and an appeal to the base with promises of vengeance against the Biden Administration and liberals in general.
Across the country, a total of 201 Republicans who deny the legitimacy of the 2020 election are on the ballot for federal, state or local positions. And it’s telling that McConnell, who has dutifully held his nose and carried Trump’s bilge water at key moments (such as publicly condemning Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 riot, then acquitting him in his impeachment trial), is now considered a RINO (Republican in Name Only) by the MAGA wing.
It’s no wonder America has a Rust Belt, given the abundance of irony.
It’s also telling that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy felt compelled to unveil the GOP’s “Commitment to America,” a breathtakingly light-on-details screed that attempts to convince the undecided that his party actually has a legislative agenda (starting with crippling the IRS’s ability to police tax cheats) along with obstructing and impeaching Biden and calling the legal dogs off Trump’s rump.
Lost in this ridiculous, tumultuous shuffle are reasonable centrists like Marc Molinaro, who is running for Congress in New York’s 19th district. Molinaro recently urged that diplomacy be our main focus in Ukraine while we require that country to account for the millions of dollars the U.S. has sent for its defense against Russia. It’s a reasonable request given the possibility of corruption and skimming (Afghanistan was a sinkhole of waste), but the nuances of Molinaro’s argument are sure to be lost in the miasma of oversimplification that political races naturally become.
That Donald Trump and the GOP’s current basket of deplorables are even remotely viable candidates is a sad commentary on this country. That any of them can actually win is truly horrifying.
Despite the threats to democracy and personal freedoms such as marriage, contraception, gender-affirming medical care, and a woman’s right to control her own body, if enough Americans don’t give a hoot who is in office as long as gasoline remains cheap, the nation’s future will be ruled by this kind of people.
John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website Celestialchuckle.com (https://celestialchuckle.com) with the meter running.