Alaska’s Republican Party leaders were excited to boast about the record turnout for their Presidential Preference Poll last week. They attributed it to “extraordinarily high” enthusiasm for the candidates. However, that superlative spin is undermined by a few easy observations, including the number of registered Republicans who stayed home and the party’s anyone-but-Trump campaign that’s gaining traction across the nation.
Let’s start with the turnout. I’m not denying the fact that it shattered the old record from 2012. But the 22,000 people who took the time to vote is an embarrassingly low 16-percent of the state’s 136,000 registered Republicans.
Compare that with Idaho’s presidential primary this past week. Ten times as many people went to polls there. That’s an amazing two-thirds of their registered Republicans. Even the Iowa caucus saw a 30 percent turnout of party loyalists.
Republican consultant Cale Green implied that those who did vote last week were swept up in the same anti-establishment fever that propelled Joe Miller’s upset of Sen. Lisa Murkowski six years ago. But in winning that race Miller received just over half of the 110,000 ballots cast by Republicans.
In any case, with the exception of Ohio Gov. John Kasich, the ballot contained nothing but anti-establishment candidates. That includes Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. He might be have become the party leaders’ preferred alternative to Donald Trump, but the same year Miller upset Murkowski, Rubio was declared the Tea Party’s Crown Prince.
What about the Trump phenomenon?
Unlike its national leaders, the state party establishment refused to attack him.
“You will not find a disparaging comment here about any of the candidates,” wrote GOP Communications Director Suzanne Downing on its website. And chairman Peter S. Goldberg added that any of them, including Trump, “would make a great president.”
But that kind of endorsement has to be put into the context of the alternative. In their world, another Democrat in the White House would continue taking us toward the apocalypse. Voters were angry “at what has happened over the past eight years of the Obama presidency,” Downing said. Which Goldenberg explained as “being tired of federal overreach” and “the disdain that Barack Obama has had for the military.”
Alaska Dispatch News columnist Paul Jenkins would also prefer anyone to a Democrat. But after calling Trump a nightmare, he took the blame-Obama-for-everything logic to a new extreme. “If you are wondering what political swamp spawned Trump, the truth is obvious: Democrats’ contempt for law and the Constitution,” he wrote before calling out “the so-called Republican establishment” for losing “its backbone in dealing with President Barack Obama.”
The vitriolic intensity aimed at Obama these last seven years is a just a symptom of a more serious infection that rooted itself in the party around the time they took control of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1995. Even since then party leaders have been indulging rightwing pundits like Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck, who, in their own unique way, have been trashing all liberals and Democrats as a demonic curse on America.
Meanwhile, except four of the past 20 years, the GOP held the majority in the House. Half that time they enjoyed it in the Senate, too. Yet even though they were in control, they continued to preach that government is the problem, not the solution.
If that were true, then they might take as evidence the record of the only Republican president during these past two decades. President George W. Bush started the Iraq war that eventually powered ISIS into its ugly existence. To support that and the 14-year-long war in Afghanistan, the Republican dominated government in D.C. added $6 trillion to the national debt.
During the GOP debate in South Carolina last month, Trump dared to suggest Bush screwed up by invading Iraq. He called it a “big fat mistake” that “destabilized the Middle East.” Jeb Bush’s immediate response — “I’m sick and tired of Barack Obama blaming my brother for all of the problems that he’s had” — epitomizes the party’s inability to acknowledge any of its own failures.
Alaskans by and large are a politically independent breed. Only a quarter were eligible to vote last week. I like to think they’re disgusted at the divisive shrill that’s been substituted for meaningful democratic debate. And maybe that’s why much of the 84 percent of registered Republicans chose not to vote for any of the GOP presidential candidates competing with Trump to be the most obnoxious politician in America.
• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident and retired civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience working in the public sector.