The most frightening candidate I’ve met in seven years interviewing congressional hopefuls

David Wasserman is House editor for The Cook Political Report, where he is responsible for handicapping and analyzing U.S. House Races.

Louisiana Republican Congressional candidate Lenar Whitney explains why she called global warming a "hoax" in the speech she gave announcing her congressional run. (Lenar Whitney via YouTube)

As a House analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, I’ve personally interviewed over 300 congressional candidates over the course of seven years, both to get to know them and evaluate their chances of winning. I’ve been impressed by just as many Republicans as Democrats, and underwhelmed by equal numbers, too. Most are accustomed to tough questions.

But never have I met any candidate quite as frightening or fact-averse as Louisiana state Rep. Lenar Whitney, 55, who visited my office last Wednesday. It’s tough to decide which party’s worst nightmare she would be.

Whitney, a graduate of Nicholls State University who is running for Louisiana’s open 6th District, owned a dance studio in Houma, La., for 34 years and also worked in sales for small telecommunications and oilfield equipment companies. She clearly relishes poking Democrats in the eye, cites Minnesota’s Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) as a political role model, and takes kindly to the nickname “Palin of the South.”

Whitney has only raised $123,000 to date (fourth in the GOP field), but she has sought to boost her profile and appeal to conservative donors with a slickly made YouTube video entitled “GLOBAL WARMING IS A HOAX” (84,000 views so far). In the video, Whitney gleefully and confidently asserts that the theory of global warming is the “greatest deception in the history of mankind” and that “any 10-year-old” can disprove it with a simple household thermometer.

Whitney’s brand of rhetoric obviously resonates with some very conservative Louisiana voters who view President Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency as big-city elitists directly attacking the state’s energy industry and their own way of life. And she would hardly be the first “climate denier” elected to Congress. But it’s not unreasonable to expect candidates to explain how they arrived at their positions, and when I pressed Whitney repeatedly for the source of her claim that the earth is getting colder, she froze and was unable to cite a single scientist, journal or news source to back up her beliefs.

To change the subject, I asked whether she believed Obama was born in the United States. When she replied that it was a matter of some controversy, her two campaign consultants quickly whisked her out of the room, accusing me of conducting a “Palin-style interview.”

It was the first time in hundreds of Cook Political Report meetings that a candidate has fled the room.

*      *      *

Thanks to a perfect cocktail of advantageous geography, favorable midterm turnout and a beneficial political climate, there’s very little chance Republicans will lose their 17-seat House majority in November.

But one thing the House GOP might want to shed is their public image. According to a McClatchy-Marist poll taken earlier this year, just 26 percent of voters approved of “Republicans in Congress,” while 69 percent disapproved. Democrats in Congress fared slightly less poorly, at 32 percent approve and 63 percent disapprove.

If you talk to Republican consultants and pollsters, most will admit that while their party’s brand needs an “extreme makeover” to win back the White House, the party’s loudest voices preaching from the right of the House GOP conference have allowed Democrats to paint the GOP as simply “extreme.”

Democrats secretly delight every time Bachmann calls for an expose of “anti-American” views among her colleagues, Georgia Rep. Paul Broun refers to the theory of evolution as “lies straight from the pit of hell,” or Georgia Rep. Phil Gingrey partially defends Todd Akin’s comments on rape. Why? Comments like these do nothing but alienate suburbanites, fuel Democratic fundraising e-mails, and fire up left-leaning donors who have, amazingly, helped House Democrats outraise House Republicans by $20 million so far this election cycle.

So, perhaps it should come as a relief to Republicans that some of these generators of unwanted side-shows are exiting stage right in 2014: Bachmann is retiring under an ethical cloud, and both Broun and Gingrey forfeited their House seats to run unsuccessfully for Senate this year.

Yet just this week, Democrats claimed to have raised $2 million after newly elected House GOP Whip Steve Scalise (La.) refused to totally rule out pursuing Obama’s impeachment during a Sunday Fox News interview. What’s more, a closer inspection of credible Republican contenders for open House seats suggests there are more than enough bomb-throwers to potentially fill the void that the headline-grabbing likes of Bachmann, Broun and Gingrey leave behind in 2015. That’s making 2016-minded party strategists nervous.

Whitney still has a large field of opposition to conquer if she is to get to Congress. But as the only candidate from the southern end of Louisiana’s 6th district (13 percent of the district’s GOP vote), she could conceivably consolidate enough support to take advantage of a divided field of Baton Rouge-based Republicans. Noted anti-gay marriage activist and Family Research Council President Tony Perkins co-hosted a Washington fundraiser for Whitney last week. And, thanks to Louisiana’s unique election rules, Whitney could plausibly end up in a December runoff against colorful Democratic convicted felon and former governor Edwin Edwards, where she would be almost guaranteed to win the seat, thanks to the ultra-Republican lean of the district (Mitt Romney took 66 percent of the vote there in 2012).

Elsewhere, other aspirants are keeping Beltway Republicans up at night. Last week, Baptist pastor and talk radio host Jody Hice won the Republican nomination to succeed Broun in Georgia’s 10th District, essentially cinching a seat in Congress in the fall. Passages from his book, “It’s Now or Never: A Call to Reclaim America,” compare homosexuality to bestiality and compare supporters of legal abortion to Adolph Hitler, among other greatest hits. Hice’s shoot-from-the-lip style gins up religious conservative activists but is also tailor made for DCCC fundraising e-mails and “Daily Show” lampooning. For Democrats, Hice may be the gift that keeps on giving.

The GOP’s fringe fears aren’t limited to the Deep South. In Wisconsin, state Sen. Glenn Grothman is locked in a fierce three-way primary for retiring moderate GOP Rep. Tom Petri’s 6th District, near Sheboygan. In 2012, Grothman sponsored a bill to classify single parenthood as a contributing factor to childhood and neglect. Grothman has derided the Democratic group Emily’s List as a “historically racist organization” and has been quoted alleging “unwanted pregnancies are the fault of mothers … many mothers lie about the circumstances of their pregnancies.” If Grothman wins the August primary, he would be the favorite in November.

Of course, in the past, Democrats have had to deal with their own embarrassment magnets who have strayed from the party’s preferred talking points, such as Florida’s Rep. Alan Grayson. And in all fairness, the strong majority of GOP House hopefuls I’ve met so far this cycle — including recent interviewees such as Arkansas state Rep. Bruce Westerman and Wisconsin state Sen. Joe Leibham — and are well-meaning, well-qualified people who would fit into the conservative yet realistic-minded plurality of the House GOP conference.

But at the moment, there are more than enough exotic Republican candidates not easily persuaded by basic facts or scientific evidence to overshadow others in the GOP laying out cogent policy alternatives, such as retiring GOP Rep. Dave Camp, whose tax reform plan died a quiet death this spring. The newest pack of provocateurs threatens to continue wreaking havoc on the party’s image among the growing ranks of independents and college-educated voters in 2015 and beyond.

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James David Lee · July 30, 2014

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