In a stunning turn of events, a little-known, hyper-conservative congressional candidate became the darling of the tea party movement, earned the surprise endorsement of former Gov. Sarah Palin (R-Twitter), and made a last-minute push in the polls, overtaking the moderate GOP frontrunner who up to that point had been considered a shoo-in to win the seat. After emerging as the preferred GOP pick, the tea party candidate's extreme positions made clear that a race that had once been considered a GOP-lock had turned into a potential win for the Democrats. As such, the conservative media were fractured: some complained that Republicans sacrificed electability in favor of ideology, and were quickly cannibalized by the bloggers and commentators who insisted either that their new extremist could win in a general election, or that it was better to lose with a “real” conservative on the ballot than to win with a “RINO.”
I'm talking, of course, about Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman and the 2009 special election for New York's 23rd Congressional district. Early polling in the race showed moderate Republican candidate Dede Scozzafava with a comfortable lead over Hoffman and Democrat Bill Owens, before the still-nascent tea party machinery lined up behind Hoffman and Palin lent him her imprimatur. As more Republicans defected from their party's candidate to back Hoffman, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich held fast, endorsing Scozzafava and explaining that it was a question of winning: “If your interest is taking power back from the Left, and your interest is winning the necessary elections, then there are times when you have to put together a coalition that has disagreement within it.” As a reward for his tent-building efforts, Gingrich was excoriated by right-wing bloggers, who said he had lost all credibility and didn't support true conservatism. (He's since made amends by attacking President Obama's “Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior.” )
In the end, Scozzafava dropped out of the race and the seat that had once been considered hers went instead to Bill Owens, who defeated Hoffman 48-46 percent. After the election, Rush Limbaugh endorsed the view of RedState.com blogger Erick Erickson, saying: “It would have been great if Hoffman won, but the real victory was making sure that a Republican-in-name-only did not win.”
Fast forward one year to the Delaware Republican Senate primary and, though the races aren't completely identical, it starts to feel like déjà vu all over again. Republican Christine O'Donnell, who got thumped by Joe Biden in Delaware's 2008 Senate race, decided to give it another shot in 2010 and for a long time languished far behind Rep. Mike Castle in the Republican primary race. That, of course, changed very rapidly when Sarah Palin decided that O'Donnell was one of her “Mama Grizzlies” and the tea party dumped a pile of cash in her lap. Right-wing bloggers quickly aligned with Queen Bee Palin and ripped into Castle, hysterically claiming that he had voted to impeach George W. Bush. The same series of events played out: polling showed O'Donnell overtaking Castle late in the game, and when the dust settled, O'Donnell emerged as the unlikely Republican candidate.
And as nasty as the race between Castle and O'Donnell was, the internecine warfare between conservative bloggers and journalists over the race was incomparably vicious. The Weekly Standard, Powerline, Mark Levin, and other bloggers got into a massive twist regarding the Standard's long-form takedown of O'Donnell. Here's a sampling from the back-and-forth: “I think you're an ass,” “a disgrace,” “mouthpieces for the Republican establishment,” “lazy and unfair,” “smear tactics against O'Donnell,” “elitist and arrogant attitude,” “jackass,” “what an idiot.”
But no figure better represents the O'Donnell-inspired clash between ideology and electability than Karl Rove, who appeared on Fox News' Hannity the night of O'Donnell's win to attack her “checkered background” adding: “It does conservatives little good to support candidates who, at the end of the day, while they may be conservative in their public statements, do not evince the characteristics of rectitude and truthfulness and sincerity and character that the voters are looking for.” The right-wing reaction was swift and brutal. Michelle Malkin said Rove was “an effete sore loser.” Dan Riehl called for Fox News to “suspend and investigate” Rove. Erickson said Rove was “in full meltdown,” while Levin accused the former Bush adviser of declaring “war against the Tea Party movement and conservatives.” Rove, after initially defending his stance, folded like a lawn chair during a particularly aggrieved Fox News appearance, insisting that he endorsed O'Donnell and was going to help her.
As for the growing consensus that O'Donnell's primary victory has torpedoed the GOP's once-excellent chances of capturing the Senate seat (polls show Democrat Chris Coons trailed Castle by about 10 points, but leads O'Donnell by double-digits), conservatives again fell back to winning-isn't-everything justifications. “If we lose it, fine. It's better to have a genuine Marxist in the US Senate rather than a phony, pretend conservative who's gonna vote often like a Marxist and just confuse everybody and water down the entire identification of what a conservative or what a Republican is,” said Rush, whose attitude was enthusiastically cheered by Erickson.
So what can be drawn from these two scenarios? One is led to the unavoidable conclusion that the right-wing media's commitment to ideological purity transcends not just partisan loyalty, but logic and common sense. They want “real” conservatives in power, but when the “real” conservative politicians they support lose to Democrats, they convince themselves not only that this doesn't matter, but that it's a good thing. They want Republicans to control Congress, and they're willing to sacrifice as many Republicans in Congress as is necessary to achieve that goal.
A network of their very own
Christine O'Donnell's rise to electoral prominence has also helped to reveal just how integral Fox News has become in modern Republican politics.
The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press released a survey this week detailing Americans' news-gathering habits. Of particular note was their partisan breakdown of cable news audiences over the past decade. In 2000, 18 percent of Republicans and 18 percent of Democrats said they regularly get their news from Fox. In 2010, the percentage of Democratic regular viewers has dipped to 15, while regular Republican viewers skyrocketed to 40 percent. Moreover, 41 percent of Republicans believe “all or most” of what Fox News says. It is the network of and for the GOP. Kevin Drum observed: “As Fox has steadily amped up its conservative branding, conservatives have decided that's all they want to hear. The echo chamber must be getting pretty deafening over there.”
But this transcends mere epistemic closure. Fox News' viewers aren't just looking for pro-conservative bromides and limited-government chalkboard diagrams -- they're looking for candidates. And Fox News is also meeting that demand. Christine O'Donnell's rapid rise was due in part to the big assist she got from Fox News -- and not just from Sarah Palin, but from their entire stable of conservative hosts and contributors. But don't take my word for it. O'Donnell made sure to thank her FNC cheering squad in her victory speech, from Palin to the Beck-created 9-12 movement to the Tea Party Express, which benefits hugely from Fox News' generous attention. Like all newly-minted Republican candidates, her first post-primary stop was with the sycophantic crew of Fox & Friends.
And if O'Donnell follows Sarah Palin's advice -- and why wouldn't she? -- Fox will continue to play an integral role in her campaign. “Speak through Fox News,” counseled Palin during an appearance on The O'Reilly Factor, who explained that her vice-presidential run should serve as a cautionary tale against dealing with the legitimate media, who will occasionally do things like ask non-softball questions and point out when you've said something crazy. Fox News will let O'Donnell get her message out and make an end-run around the media's uncomfortable questions (as well as provide a ready-made venue for some quickie fund-raising).
And when you consider that the network boasts among its contributors people like Karl Rove, who heads a multi-million-dollar "shadow RNC" tasked with electing Republicans, and Dick Morris, who works diligently to elect any Republican willing to pay his exorbitant consulting fees, one can't escape the realization that Fox News has moved beyond simply cheerleading for Republicans. Right now, the network is one of the most important cogs in the national Republican electoral machine.