President Trump signaled Tuesday that he would be A-okay if Alabama voters elect a man accused of sexual misconduct with teenage girls. Echoing Kellyanne Conway's comments from the day before, Trump suggested he needs votes in the Senate, and he said Roy Moore's Democratic opponent is too liberal.
For GOP consultant Stuart Stevens, it made him long for the days when the GOP didn't make such bargains. Stevens pointed specifically to another off-year election in the Deep South: the 1991 Louisiana governor's race in which former KKK leader David Duke became the GOP standard-bearer.
President Bush endorsed the Democratic candidate running against David Duke and directed the La. Republican Party to work to defeat Duke, an effort led by former Republican Governor Dave Treen. https://t.co/va6VtOFsW4
— stuart stevens (@stuartpstevens) November 21, 2017
No two political races are completely analogous, but there are certainly some commonalities here. There are also some key differences.
There was considerably less at stake for Republicans when it came to losing 1 of 50 governor's seats, for example. In the case of Moore, losing a seat would mean the GOP's Senate majority would be cut in half, from 52-48 to 51-49. And for the GOP's tax bill, like its Obamacare replacement, one vote could easily prove to be the difference.
The other big difference is that, while Duke had a confirmed racist past, Moore has denied all of the allegations against him. But Duke at the time also tried to give the Republican Party plausible deniability, explaining that his conversion to Christianity had taken the bigotry out of his heart.
But the GOP, led by President George H.W. Bush, decided not to give him the benefit of the doubt — even as they had to massage the delicate politics of the day in the South.
A year after the GOP establishment thwarted Duke's candidacy in a GOP Senate primary, Duke ran for governor. The state had an open primary system in which every candidate ran in the same primary, with the top two going to the general election. Thanks to unhappiness with then-Gov. Buddy Roemer, who switched from Democrat to Republican earlier that year, Duke beat out the incumbent for second place with 32 percent of the vote. He headed for a general election matchup against former governor Edwin Edwards (D), and Republicans suddenly had a very big problem on their hands.
They acted swiftly. Primary day was Oct. 19, and a day later, the White House clearly disowned Duke. Bush's chief of staff, John Sununu, told ABCs “This Week” that Duke was “not the Republican nominee.”
“He is an individual that has chosen to call himself a Republican,” Sununu said. “He was not supported by the party. He is not supported by the national party.”
By Nov. 6, Bush upped the ante and called Duke an “insincere charlatan.”
“When someone has a long record, an ugly record of racism and of bigotry, that record simply cannot be erased by the glib rhetoric of a political campaign,” Bush said of Duke. “So I believe David Duke is an insincere charlatan. I believe he's attempting to hoodwink the voters of Louisiana, I believe he should be rejected for what he is and what he stands for.”
But it's important to note that the White House didn't technically endorse Edwards either.
Even the same day that Bush made his “insincere charlatan” comment, he added that: “I have got to be careful, because I don't want to tell the voters of Louisiana how to cast their ballot.” And indeed, shortly after the primary, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater had said the White House wouldn't be endorsing in the race. “We'd like them both to lose and Buddy Roemer to win on a write-in,” Fitzwater said. Roemer didn't pursue such a campaign.
There were also reasons for Bush to distance himself from Duke, besides basic decency. Some at the time were linking Duke's political rise to the tone set by Bush's 1988 campaign — particularly with regard to the controversial and racially tinged “Willie Horton” ad against Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis. The White House had also been instrumental in getting Roemer to switch parties, hoping it would hurt Duke's candidacy. But the state GOP wound up endorsing another candidate, Republican Rep. Clyde Holloway, and with the GOP establishment split, Duke eventually wound up atop a crowded GOP field. The Roemer gambit had backfired.
And finally, there were Bush's own political considerations. Even as Duke was running for governor, there were indications he might wage a Republican presidential campaign against Bush in 1992. He had run in 1988 as a Democrat before switching parties and winning his state House seat in 1989. But while the earlier campaign didn't go anywhere, Duke's stock was rising after his state House win and running well for Senate and now governor. There was real concern that he might take serious GOP presidential primary votes, especially across the South, and further embarrass the Republican Party.
While Duke himself professes to have no political ambitions beyond the governorship, analysts point out that entering the Southern primaries against Bush would be the next logical step in his steady effort to gain national prominence.
“If he can knock off a major politician, it establishes him as a formidable political power,” said John Maginnis, editor of the Louisiana Political Review, a longtime Duke watcher.
“Duke could run a pretty good national race,” said presidential biographer Stephen Ambrose, who teaches history here at the University of New Orleans. He said Duke appeals to much the same combination of racial resentment and populist discontent that fired the political success of Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace two decades ago. “But he is way ahead of Wallace,” Ambrose said. “He is more youthful, better looking and smoother.”
Today, Duke is viewed as an also-ran whose time in the national spotlight quickly faded. But at the time, he was viewed as a major threat to the GOP's reputation. The party's response was to do what it took to halt his rise, and it largely succeeded. Duke lost the governor's race to Edwards 61 percent to 39 percent, and the next year he was an also-ran in the GOP presidential primaries, hitting a high-water mark of 11 percent in Mississippi. Later campaigns would fail to come as close as his 1990 and 1991 campaigns.
In fact, about the only time Duke has been on the national radar since then was last year, when he strongly backed Trump's campaign. Feeding Duke's prominence in that case? Trump's noncommittal response to his support.
Moore doesn't perhaps pose quite so big a problem as Duke did to the GOP as an institution, but he's certainly proved to be a headache for it already. And if he wins on Dec. 12, Republicans may rue the day Trump gave his candidacy a wink and a nod.