The Friday Rush: For conservatives, $400 million buys defeat at the ballot box

If you're a masochist, like me, then I know exactly where you were last Sunday morning: in front of your television, eyes fixed to Rush Limbaugh's 30-minute tee-ball interview, courtesy of Fox News Sunday and Chris Wallace.

If you're a regular listener of The Rush Limbaugh Show -- or, better yet, a regular reader of Media Matters' Limbaugh Wire -- then you probably recognized that every morsel Limbaugh fed to ratings-hungry Wallace on the subject of Obama's destruction of the economy was just a regurgitation of what Rush passes off as compelling radio on a daily basis.

But aside from Limbaugh's deluge of misinformation -- how many times do we need to point out that issue expertise is as common on The Rush Limbaugh Show as insightful commentary is on a Fox World Series broadcast with Joe Buck and Tim McCarver? -- there was one revealing exchange between Limbaugh and Wallace. Wallace brought up that Limbaugh's current contract is reported to be worth $400 million over eight years. He and Rush then had the following exchange:

WALLACE: And don't get me wrong. I think you're a great broadcaster. How can you possibly be worth that kind of money?

LIMBAUGH: Very simply. Value is determined by what somebody will pay you to do what you do. I'm probably worth more.

Rush tried to pass off this comment the next day on his radio show as one of his many “media tweaks.” But he surely tweaked Wallace with the comment, whose expression after Limbaugh gave that answer was as dumbfounded as ours:


But what do you get for $400 million? For conservatives, $400 million bought them electoral failure.

There's a lot to be said about what Democratic losses in the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races mean (and, of course, what they don't mean). But if we're talking about Rush Limbaugh, then the most important race to talk about is the special election in New York's 23rd Congressional District and Limbaugh's failure to help deliver a win for Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman.

Like the rest of the conservative media, Limbaugh promoted the third-party candidacy of Doug Hoffman over GOP candidate Dede Scozzafava (who ended up dropping out days before the election) and Democratic candidate Bill Owens. It was clear that Limbaugh preferred Hoffman by the way he absolutely trashed Scozzafava for being a Republican in name only (or, “RINO” ):

LIMBAUGH: Scozzafava has screwed every RINO in the coun -- we can say that she's guilty of widespread bestiality. She has screwed every RINO in the country. Everyone can see just how phony and dangerous they are.

On Tuesday's program, a few hours before the polls closed in New York, Limbaugh predicted a Hoffman victory and explained the importance of the race as such (subscription required):

LIMBAUGH: This is where conservative Americans are drawing the line. New York-23. This is where we are fighting, this is where we will take a stand against both the liberal wing of the Republican Party and Obama and the Democrat [sic] Party.

Later that night, Hoffman was declared the loser. Regardless, Limbaugh went on the air the next day to spin a clear defeat into a moral victory. “What did not lose was conservatism,” proclaimed Limbaugh as he went over the results. He also bragged that Hoffman had the highest percentage of votes ever won by a Conservative Party candidate running for the House or Senate. And referencing a blog post by Erick Erickson at, Limbaugh added:

LIMBAUGH: [T]he message out of this is, we took out a horrible Republican. We kept a horrible Republican from possibly winning and totally redefining the party in a way that would make it a permanent minority party. So in Erick's view, yeah, it would've been great if Hoffman won, but the real victory was making sure that a Republican in Name Only did not win.

I don't have a problem with trying to be optimistic about losing or trying to pick out the positive morsels of a bitter defeat. But you know who used to? Rush Limbaugh.

Back in 2006, Rush was busy mocking Democrats for claiming a “moral victory” in special elections that they lost:

LIMBAUGH: So I would say to you Democrats who want to continue to redefine victory as when you narrowly lose, “Keep it up, because for all the moral victories in the world you think you're having, it's just a bunch of sophistry. You're just stroking yourselves trying to tell yourself something good happened when you lost,” and of course for the country at large, it is a good thing when liberal Democrats lose.

That's what he said on the day of the 2006 special election in California's 50th Congressional District between Republican Brian Bilbray and Democrat Francine Busby. The next day, after Busby had been defeated, Limbaugh basked under the heat lamp of his self-described brilliance for predicting that Democrats would declare a moral victory after losing “by four-and-a-half to five points.”

So back in NY-23, why did the conservative Hoffman lose? Election analysis guru Nate Silver took a stab at that question:

Why? Because those [conservative] activists -- however well-meaning they might have been -- misunderstood the district. The 23rd is a Republican district, but it is not a particularly conservative one, having split its vote between Barack Obama and the moderate Republican John McHugh last November.

If Nancy Pelosi is regarded suspiciously in the 23rd, so are Sarah Palin and Fred Thompson, who cut commercials and robocalls on behalf of Hoffman. What the voters there wanted was a candidate who understood them. Owens -- superior to Hoffman in his command of local issues -- provided the best approximation. [Emphasis added]

So instead of being the harbinger of conservative ascendancy that Limbaugh and his followers had hoped, NY-23 ended up being proof that Limbaugh's daily platitudes about the universality of conservative values had literally no application in the real world.

Which brings us back to the issue of Limbaugh's pay. There's no mystery as to what makes Rush Limbaugh the highest paid person in his field of work: He knows how to get attention.

But that's all his paycheck is for: getting people's attention. He doesn't have to advance the cause of conservatism. He's not responsible for making sure conservatives win at the ballot. His job is to get his legion of Dittoheads to pay for a subscription to the Heritage Foundation and use Zicam. In other words, his job is to sell ads.

Is Rush Limbaugh worth $400 million over eight years to his syndication company? Like Limbaugh said during his interview with Wallace, that's what the free market determined he was worth. Fine.

But is Rush Limbaugh worth $400 million over eight years to the conservative movement?

Following the outcome of NY-23, there may be some conservative activists out there who would want to reconsider that investment.