If Republican Mo Brooks wins Tuesday's contest for Alabama's fifth Congressional district, it will be for two reasons: (1) retail politics (2) Glenn Beck. I found two men at the Republican headquarters in Lauderdale County last Thursday. One of them was kind enough to speak on camera. Thoughts on my interview with them, and the House race I reported on here eleven days ago, are below the fold.
Over the last year, Republican candidate Mo Brooks has attended every tea party, gun show, football game, and open-air cultural event in North Alabama. Brooks' shoe leather campaign style relies heavily on the tea party-infused national mood. When I described my intentions honestly (because that is what real journalists do), "Phil," a Brooks volunteer who declined to appear on camera, immediately zeroed in on the word "progressive" with a Beckian tone. In attempting to convert me, Phil repeated Beck's entire canon of right-wing propaganda stories.
Obama dropped charges against that New Black Panther with a stick -- eleven days before he was inaugurated. The unions are stealing the vote in Nevada -- except they aren't. A tidal wave of illegal immigrants is descending on the country -- except the rate of illegal immigration has been cut by two-thirds in the last five years (while deportations have reached record rates under the Obama administration).
But Phil started with abortion. Like Steve, this is a dealbreaker for him. He segued straight into homophobia. "Do you believe that people are born gay?" He asked, answering his own question. "I don't. I think it's a choice." Before we were done, SUVs were not responsible for polar bear extinction and the president's birth certificate was in question.
When I challenged just one of these stories -- the one about that black man with that stick at that polling-place in that heavily-Democratic neighborhood where those Bushies tried but failed to find even one voter who'd felt intimidated -- Phillips just shook his head with the conviction of the righteous: no, the Obama administration was responsible for the decision to drop charges. This was the only reality allowed in the room.
Phil complained that Obama had not attended the National Prayer Breakfast (that he actually did attend) and then spoke of Obama's Iftar dinner as though it was a sign of...what? Phil never said, exactly. As long as Islam is worked into the conversation, though, the scary black (foreign? Muslim?) president is still why I should vote for Mo Brooks. Never mind that the president drinks beer and eats pork and we heard way too much about Pastor(!) Jeremiah Wright during the 2008 campaign.
In other words, you couldn't have a better contrast of candidates or campaigns. Here's how my local newspaper-of-record reported the only debate between Brooks and his rival, Steve Raby:
Brooks, a Republican, spent much of the evening identifying his Democratic opponent with U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and liberal Democrats.
Raby countered that Brooks is so steeped in national Republican political philosophy that he would fail the 5th District.
The tone of the debate was tense at times, which only underscored their differences in style. Brooks takes a broader, GOP-based view of how to solve some of the country's problems, while Raby's focus is more grassroots and district-oriented.
There hasn't been much polling in the district, and none lately. Some August polling had Raby down by eleven points, but much has happened in the meantime. The primary saw slightly less Democratic turnout than Republican turnout, yet Raby's strategy has been to energize Democratic voters to turn out for him in the general election. Along the way he has wrapped up all manner of major endorsements from newspapers, unions, and so forth; and those still have an impact in Alabama. But how much? They put him over the top in the primary, but that was the primary.
The district has not been in Republican hands since Reconstruction; what Steve said on the video about North Alabama, and particularly Lauderdale County, being Union-friendly territory during the Civil War is true. But history seems to end 136 years ago and pick back up with the election of President Obama. Steve has apparently never heard of Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the racist origins of our state constitution, Dixiecrats, George Wallace, or the southern strategy. Somehow, I feel certain that if I mentioned these things he would dismiss them as ancient history.
Can tireless campaigning and cognitive dissonance yield a GOP victory, or will Tip O'Neil's law about all politics being local combine with GOTV efforts to put Raby over the top? I don't know, but I sense the race is tighter than eleven points. I also shudder at something both men were eager to tell me: that the local Tea Party Patriots will be adopting "true the vote" next election cycle. In other words, this is coming to the Fifth District:
RALEIGH — Republican poll observers who say they’re trying to root out fraud have aggressively approached voters and elections officials inside early voting sites, questioned established voting law and drawn at least two dozen complaints from voters, Wake elections officials said.
Election officials and campaign watchdog groups said the observers’ actions could intimidate voters and suppress turnout. State Board of Elections Executive Director Gary Bartlett said he had been informed about the problems in Wake. It is against the law for observers to talk to voters and argue with poll workers.
Poll watchers in Harris County, Texas -- where a Tea Party group launched an aggressive anti-voter fraud effort -- were accused of "hovering over" voters, "getting into election workers' faces" and blocking or disrupting lines of voters who were waiting to cast their ballots as early voting got underway yesterday.
Gee, can't wait. That all sounds so delightfully like the stories of disenfranchisement that were missing from my 10th grade Alabama History textbook (but not, thankfully, from my AP American History reader).
Brooks was on Florence Boulevard the other day with supporters waving a banner that read "FIRE PELOSI" (I didn't have the camera with me, or there would be video). To me, it was emblematic of the campaign: Brooks hopes his adamant supporters can focus everyone's attention on culture wars, with Pelosi and Obama as bogeymen. This is actually a reason I remain hopeful, as Brooks is basically recycling the strategy that failed his predecessor, Parker Griffith:
To be fair, Brooks' radio ads are mainly anti-tax. Phil told me that as a Madison County Commissioner, Brooks had once fought to cut a garbage rate increase from $3 down to fifty cents. He reckoned this an important achievement. But both ads and campaigners tell me that Brooks will "take on liberal Washington." When I pressed Phil on a question about tea party activism, he insisted it was an entirely grassroots phenomenon -- and that the Democratic Party was doomed to extinction. This was in contrast to polls showing that young Americans are more progressive than ever; indeed, Steve seemed to think that by "young people" I meant parents.
Driving home, I stopped to get the shot of that Tea Party Patriots of North Alabama highway billboard telling me it was "time to roll up our sleeves" as I left Florence. Upon arriving home later, I learned pyramid schemer and Tea Party Patriots organizer Mark Meckler is crisscrossing the country doing GOTV in a private jet provided by a multimillionaire sponsor of the Heritage Foundation.
I like Phil and Steve, but I don't live in the same universe with them. Their world is faith-based and mine is fact-based. After talking informally with dozens of Brooks supporters, I can safely say they are not outliers. If Mo Brooks wins, it will happen because there are enough people willing to vote against their own interests out of fear and loathing. They make much of Christianity, but like a Glenn Beck rally on the National Mall their faith seems entirely political.
As I left, Phil asked me what I would do if I was in the president's situation vis-a-vis my birth certificate. I replied that I would probably put my birth certificate on the internet like the president did. Not that it would work, apparently, because as long as there are "questions" about its authenticity then people can remain "troubled" without troubling their Christian conscience. See how that works?
Culture wars are not meant to be won; they are meant to be continuous.