A week in America | 17 September 2021

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In the latest ‘A week in America’ Martin Liptrot discusses the GOP and its failure to deliver what it needs when I matters most.

September means two things in America – football season and the start of another election cycle.

For millions of Grid Iron fans, the long and complicated road to Superbowl LVI has kicked off, while for those cheering on their political favourites, the up-coming mid-term elections are the start of the battle for the White House 2024.

While Miami Dolphins fans believe this might be the ‘Year of the Fish’ following their opening day win over the New England Patriots, we also got a little sample of what might lie ahead for those watching the ballot boxes as Democrat California Governor, Gavin Newsom stormed to victory in the recall election in the Golden State.

Honestly, ‘winning’ a recall is perhaps a difficult argument to make, as the whole process is based on voters expressing such dissatisfaction with the incumbent’s performance that they can’t wait for the next scheduled election to oust him or her.

Newsom’s problems were kickstarted by his poorly-judged decision to attend a star- studded birthday party at the uber-swanky French Laundry restaurant in Napa Valley while earlier in the day preaching to the state’s citizens they must stay home to avoid the spread of COVID.  A classic ‘do as I say’ blunder.

On the back of this, a coalition of conservative groups got the boost they needed to collect the signatures of 1.5 million registered voters – from a total of 22 million – to trigger the recall election.

So far so good for the GOP you would think, but it quickly fell apart.

Recall elections have two parts – 1. Should the current governor be recalled? and if so, 2. Who should replace them?

While the various wings of the party could unite around the first question, the second proved more divisive.

The first candidate to put their head above the parapet to be considered a suitable replacement was none other than Kaitlyn Jenner – the transgender activist, comedic character in the Kardashian soap opera and remembered by many as former Olympian Bruce Jenner.

This dealt the campaign a fatal first blow. While it attracted a blaze of publicity on TMZ and the morning gossip shows, the recall slipped from a serious political challenge of national note, to a celebrity fun-fest which the rest of the U.S. could quickly detach its interest from, rolling their collective eyes at another example of Californication.

And worse was to come. Having got the recall on the ballot, the conservative groups were understandably unwilling to then stand aside and allow the mainstream Republican movement to choose a candidate with a good chance of winning.

The Republican establishment wanted moderate former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer to run unopposed but his electable stance on issues like abortion, race and equality wasn’t what the Conservatives were hoping for.

Mainstream Republicans and Conservatives then spent their time quarrelling amongst themselves about who was the most suitable candidate to be the next resident of the Governor’s mansion. From a field of more than 20 potential candidates the establishment Republicans gathered around Faulconer while Conservatives and activists backed right-wing radio broadcaster Larry Elder.

The LA Times reported Bill Whalen, an aide to former Gov. Pete Wilson as saying: “In California, Republicans don’t fall in line, Instead, they line up to fall over one another.”

Bickering, internal wrangling and internecine assaults ensued – a fatal flaw which would determine the outcome of the recall election.

Meanwhile, the Democrats invested their time, and millions of early campaign dollars defining what the election was ‘really about’, or at least what ‘they wanted the election to be about’ – Science-based health and COVID policies; safely reopening schools and businesses; and not re-opening the door to the chaos of the Trump days.

Smart move.

So, what does this teach us about the forthcoming mid-term elections?

Remember, the GOP only need to win one senate seat to take back control or add a total of 5 Representatives to block President Biden’s current easy path to get legislation passed.

But if only things were so easy. The GOP appears locked on a path of picking leaders and candidates who appeal to the party core rather than the electorate, with the inevitable result – a song which will sound familiar to Labour Party supporters and voters back in the UK.

The registered Republicans that are left in California philosophically are right in there with Republicans in Texas or Republicans in Tennessee,” Jon Fleischman, a long-time GOP activist and former executive director of the party told the LA Times.

California is a Democrat state. It broadly returns Democrats to Congress and leading roles in the state, though Republicans have been able to win here in the past – Arnold Schwarzenegger won a gubernatorial recall election in 2003 for the GOP.

But during the Trump years moderate Republicans left the party and, consequently, the grass roots is now much, much more conservative.

Schwarzenegger, who famously warned a GOP Convention that they were ‘dying at the box office” had a more damning assessment of this week’s election result: “direct to video’.

Republican activists it seems are waiting for the sequel to their last blockbuster.

They want the man with the orange tan and fly-away comb over back, and they are looking to find other candidates made in his image –  Ron DeSantis in Florida, Larry Elder in California, and Harriet Hageman in Wyoming where the conservative activists are desperate for anyone to beat Liz Cheney, a long-time critic of Trump from within the Republican core.

The people who are successful are the conservative shock jocks” warned Chad Mayes, a one-time GOP legislative leader – “and Faulconer – the one guy who most reflected California’s values and could provide a message for the Republican Party to grow on — is going to be done.

A bit like the Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers and New York Jets – Republican candidates are guilty of too many fumbles, interceptions, and high risk ‘pray and hope’ Hail Mary’s.

Perhaps it is simply time for a new GOP quarterback? Or maybe they need to revisit their entire playbook – offence, defence and special teams. But one thing is for sure – they are failing to get over the line when it counts.

Martin Liptrot is a writer and commentator on public affairs and politics based in Florida.