Does the GOP Hate Its Own Voters?

Jon Huntsman

Vintage 2012 Huntsmania, zooming into action! (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

The headline question is nearly rhetorical, after reading the latest antics of the once grand party. It seems the national GOP was looking to run someone against Republican Utah Senator — and grassroots favorite — Mike Lee in next year’s primary. But it gets worse. CNN’s John King has the story:

Lee stunned the GOP establishment by wresting the Republican nomination for a Senate seat in Utah from longtime incumbent Sen. Robert Bennett, and from that moment on has been a national tea party star.

Now, the establishment is looking to return the favor.

So far, no credible 2016 primary challenger has emerged despite frequent complaints about Lee from Utah business and GOP establishment figures.

But CNN is told there is now an aggressive push to lure a onetime Utah GOP star back into the game.

That onetime GOP star? Jon Huntsman, former Utah governor, former Obama ambassador to China, and former failed presidential contender. The good news is that Huntsman doesn’t seem interested in running. But by even considering Huntsman, Republican leaders show just how little they either understand or respect (or both) the party’s very own rank and file. If there were any genuine clamor to remove Lee, a primary opponent would already be organically emerging. Having the party leadership look to Huntsman, however, shows a special kind of stupid from the Stupid Party.

Huntsman’s short-lived 2012 presidential run was notable only for the disdain he demonstrated for the very people whose votes he needed to earn to win the nomination. In a recent National Journal article called “How Not to Run for President,” James Oliphant reminds us just where Huntsman’s troubles began:

The presidential battlefield is littered with casualties who won over Beltway columnists but fell flat in the rest of the country. Clark made the cover of Newsweek, and Pawlenty earned a huge amount of hype from political journalists in early 2011. Huntsman, too, did well with the elite media—New York magazine put him on the cover with Mitt Romney—before foundering in the actual campaign. “Huntsman had a lot of good press coverage,” says Matt David. “But we needed press coverage to translate into fundraising. Our fundraising never changed.”

The path to popularity with GOP voters does not run through the gamut of leftwing Complicit Media magazine covers. To put it another way, Huntsman would have gotten similar results trying to win over the attendees of a PETA rally by wearing a fur coat and munching on a Big Mac slathered in foie gras. Huntsman wanted to be loved by the media, which meant not offending the White House. In the same Oliphant piece, Huntsman’s former communications director is quoted as saying, “In ’12, [GOP primary voters] wanted someone who was really going to take it to Obama, and that wasn’t the candidate we had.”

And just in case you’d forgotten, there were Huntsman’s “love letters” to President Obama:

“You are a remarkable leader,” Huntsman wrote to Obama in an Aug. 16, 2009 note, underlining the word “remarkable,” “and it has been a great honor getting to know you.”

The letter thanks Obama for “the graciousness and kindness you have shown me and my family – particularly your confidence in my ability to represent you in China.” Huntsman said he was “leaving behind a state we love – but anticipating an extraordinary experience in Beijing.”

Around the same time, Huntsman wrote an even more gushing love note to former President Bill Clinton. Obviously, Huntsman is not a candidate whose main appeal is to GOP grassroots voters — especially in a state as traditionally conservative as Utah.

But why all the Mike Lee hate from bigwig Republicans, both inside the Beltway and back home in Salt Lake City? For that, we go back to October of 2013 and the government shutdown, when Lee stood arm-in-arm with Texas Senator (and Tea Party favorite) Ted Cruz:

Utah, one of the most Republican states in the nation, has a long tradition of being represented by pragmatic, business-minded conservatives in the U.S. Senate. Lee broke that pattern by governing as an ideological firebrand — standing alongside Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) in the push for a shutdown in a failed bid to undermine President Obama’s health-care law.

As a result, Lee’s approval ratings in Utah have cratered, and prominent Republicans and local business executives are openly discussing the possibility of mounting a primary challenge against him. Top Republicans are also maneuvering to redesign the party’s nomination system in a way that would likely make it more difficult for Lee to win reelection in 2016.

In other words, Lee made the “wrong” people nervous — the same party insiders who seem determined, over early and strenuous objection, to make Jeb Bush the nominee.

OK, fine — party leaders always have and always will try to rig the system to produce the candidates they desire, and it’s always been up to primary voters to try to keep them in check.

But Jon Huntsman? That’s putting salt in the wound to cover the lemon juice that was poured in to loosen up the gravel they ground in there. My epitaph for his 2012 campaign read:

Somehow, a stiff and uncharismatic candidate who spoke Mandarin better than conservatism never caught on with GOP voters, even after sucking up to the MSM. But some things in politics shall forever remain mysteries.

Running Huntsman would show the GOP grassroots that the party leadership doesn’t understand what they want in a senator. But rigging the game — excuse me, “redesigning the party’s nomination system” — to force Huntsman on the grassroots would be tantamount to a declaration of a GOP Civil War.

There are plenty of indicators, economic and political, that 2016 could be a winnable year for Republican candidates, from the top of the ticket straight down to the very bottom.

Or maybe 2016 just isn’t meant to be the GOP’s year. Maybe a Civil War is what needs to happen, as Clemenza once explained to young Michael Corleone.

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It’s been almost exactly seven years since the Tea Party first placed its antiestablishment grassroots into the GOP soil. Maybe now is the time to settle the bad blood between the grassroots and the establishment.

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