COMMENTARY: One thing I’ve consistently have heard from conservatives similar to myself is, “How did we get here? How did we lose the base? How did McCainiacs become Trumpers?”
Well, as someone who’s been on the ground floor of politics organizing in the field and at the county party level for the last six years, I can tell you it’s because mainstream conservatives ignored one of the most cliché sayings in politics: Those who show up decide.
I first came into politics around 2011, just after the Tea Party movement when there was still a very visible split between the base of old guard Bush-like Republicans and the Tea Party. It was also at this time that booking a big profile name from the old-guard wing of the party became almost impossible.
From 2011-2016 I can tell you the responses they’d get if a county party, student group, or local GOP club attempted to book one of these speakers: You’d either get no response, a rejection, or be asked a fee no organization that size could reasonably make money off of.
This was not the case with the Tea Party wing of the party. They’d respond immediately, and usually were willing to work with you on price or even possibly come for free. This is because many of the folks leading and organizing the Tea Party movement did so with the purpose of converting the base. They used the knowledge that many of these small organizations wouldn’t be able to book one of the big guys to not only elevate themselves, but their message.
The takeover of the base and grassroots of the Republican Party was not a spontaneous revolution; it was a slow creep of almost a decade of hearing the same speakers over and over again.
I’d like to emphasize how it was a creep, because when I suggest to Republicans like myself, particularly candidates, that they need to go back to the small stage and win these people back, I always get comments about how it’s a lost cause. I still remember in 2012 when Tea Party speakers got nervous laughter and quiet applause. Fast forward to 2014 and they’re the featured speakers at every Lincoln Day or Reagan Day dinner in America.
And today we’re seeing a more dangerous creep into these small pulpits coming from the alt-right.
Last year many conservative figures heard of the rise of a British provocateur from Breitbart called Milo. This man dominated college campuses, offering to speak for almost nothing. This was an irresistible temptation for young college Republican organizers. You were guaranteed a high-profile speaker who would bring crowds and was affordable. Many college Republicans do not agree with Milo’s politics, but the exposure and outrage that came with it was addictive, which led to his runaway success.
I remember speaking to a group of college Republicans in late 2016 after the election and asking them why they chose to go with Milo. They all said that local or other big-name Republicans they actually liked were out of their price range or refused to do the event. They also saw Milo as a way to get publicity, something a local congressman or governor probably would not bring.
As the Tea Party bracket of speakers moves to the higher end, the alt-right has learned their lessons very well. Already this year I’ve seen local county parties host speakers like Roger Stone, Steve Bannon, The Proud Boys, Sabo and Joy Villa. This will only continue as Trump’s base feels more and more like a minority and will be willing to spend more money and time at fundraising events.
If Reagan conservatives truly wish to take the party back, they’re going to have to humble themselves and go back to these small pulpits in these rural towns — or face not only being erased from the small stage but the big one too, as many of these activists from the graduating Tea Party class start taking over the institutions as well.
Samuel LeDoux is a George Washington University graduate student studying political management. He formerly held field positions on the Susana Martinez 2014 gubernatorial campaign and John McCain’s 2016 Senate campaign. He’s also the former chairman of the Republican Party of Santa Fe County and was a delegate for New Mexico at the 2016 Republican National Convention.