What happened next illustrates the core problem with the modern, Trumpified Republican Party. The candidate who performed the assault was elected in the 2017 special election, reelected in 2018, and is now Montana’s governor. His name is Greg Gianforte.
Gianforte’s ascent tells you everything you need to know about today’s Republican Party. Disqualifying, extremist behavior isn’t just tolerated in the modern GOP — it’s encouraged. If America is going to have a functioning center-right party — and it sorely needs one for democracy to survive — then Republicans need to find a way to stop rewarding violent thugs, crackpot conspiracists, and those who troll Democrats on social media rather than solving problems.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and recently elected Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) offer an instructive comparison. Before winning a seat in Congress, Boebert had been arrested and summoned at least four times. Another time, she failed to show up for a court appointment, telling the judge she had forgotten which day of the week it was. “I am now aware today is Friday,” she explained.
Nonetheless, Boebert knocked off Scott R. Tipton, a five-term Republican incumbent in the primary. Tipton was unapologetically pro-Trump, but not extreme enough for Boebert.
Since getting elected, Boebert has established herself as a GOP firebrand. She soared to national prominence with a viral campaign ad in which she pledged to “carry my Glock” to Congress. Just hours before a violent mob stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6., Boebert wrote on Twitter that “Today is 1776.” When the mob left, Boebert then voted to overturn the results of November’s presidential election. Despite being one of the most junior figures in the House, she has been rewarded with high-profile interviews on Fox News. More than a half-million people follow her on Twitter. She is a national Republican star because of her extremism.
Romney is Boebert’s polar opposite in the party. He’s just as conservative as ever, but has made sober, sane policymaking his priority. He has condemned the party’s incitement of political violence rather than stoking it himself. Instead of making viral Twitter videos, Romney has signaled a willingness to work with Democrats in Congress to solve pressing problems. What has been his reward? He’s not just a pariah in the Republican ranks; he also nearly got killed by a mob stirred up by ex-President Donald Trump.
The problem here is twofold. First, America’s primary system tends to reward candidates who promise to be more of a partisan zealot than the incumbent they’re challenging. Second, in the Trump era, elected Republicans rocket to national political stardom by behaving in increasingly extreme ways, while compromisers are ostracized and shunned. Both dynamics are toxic for American democracy.
Let’s start with the primary system. Gerrymandering and demographic sorting (in which politically like-minded Americans live near each other) mean that most congressional elections aren’t competitive. The average margin of victory in the 2020 House elections was 28.8 percent, meaning the most common race was roughly a 65/35 landslide.
As a result, for most members of Congress, the only place to lose reelection is in a primary battle. And because primaries feature low turnout, they are disproportionately influenced by die-hard voters who are more extreme than the average member of their party.
We can put an end to that. To encourage bridge-builders rather than firebrands, you just need to make sure that those who compromise and show political courage can still win.
Take Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). She voted to convict Trump while representing a solidly red state. But she’s still likely to be reelected in 2022 because Alaska’s primary system is a nonpartisan open primary that puts the top four vote-getters from any party on the general election ballot. In the general election, Alaska uses ranked-choice voting, a system that typically rewards candidates who appeal to a broader section of the electorate. Murkowski was free to vote her conscience because Alaska’s electoral rules no longer let extremist voters have a louder voice than everyone else.
Primary reform is, therefore, a crucial first step, but it is only the first one. The longer-term problem is that the Republican Party has become radicalized. Boebert and Gianforte are more representative of the style of politics favored by the pro-Trump Republican base than either Romney or Murkowski. De-radicalizing the GOP is a longer-term project. Primary reform will help, but it won’t fix it altogether.
America needs a sane, reality-based Republican Party that denounces political violence rather than rewarding it. In other countries, pledging to carry a gun into the legislature or violently attacking a journalist would be a one-way ticket out of politics. In modern Republican politics, it’s a ticket to the governor’s mansion or national political stardom. We’ll have to find a way to fix that if we ever want to return to a politics of reason.