You can’t blame Don Blankenship for believing an ad campaign christening the Senate majority leader as “Cocaine Mitch” and attacking him for “creating jobs for Chinapeople” would catapult him toward the West Virginia Republican Senate nomination. You can understand why Dennis Kucinich might think growling like a poodle and stiffly quoting “Uptown Funk” on Fox News would create a viral video moment and push him over the finish line to win the Ohio Democratic gubernatorial primary.
After all, stranger things have happened, and in very recent memory.
The data is admittedly still scarce, but voters appear to be signaling they have had their fill of crazy. They may still hate the establishment. An outsider businessman, Mike Braun, won the Indiana Republican Senate primary by mocking his two opponents as cookie cutter creatures of Washington. An ad from eventual West Virginia victor Patrick Morrisey depicted a mountain being dropped on the U.S. Capitol. North Carolina pastor Mark Harris defeated the incumbent congressman in the Ninth District GOP primary with a familiar “drain the swamp” message. Yet voters no longer seem interested in showing their contempt for the whole system by voting for “the craziest son of a bitch in the race.”
That’s how Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie last year characterized the driving desire of Republican base voters for the last several years, culminating in their embrace of Donald Trump. The appetite for crazy lingered into the special elections of 2017. Montana voters didn’t flinch at Greg Gianforte’s pre-election body slam of a reporter. And Alabama Republicans put up Roy Moore as their Senate nominee, despite credible accusations of sexual misconduct with minors. If they violated the norms of decency, then that was simply more evidence that they would trample on the norms of Washington.
But in December, Alabama’s general electorate put sanity over party, choosing Democrat Doug Jones over Moore. Last March, Jeanne Ives came close to knocking off the incumbent Illinois governor in the Republican primary, thanks to an ad that brazenly trafficked in bigoted stereotypes. Still, she came up short.
With ads that appeared to be ripped straight from “Napoleon Dynamite,” Blankenship pitched himself as “Trumpier than Trump” in the state that gave Trump his biggest vote share, and attacked Mitch McConnell as the symbol of everything wrong with Washington Republicans. But Trump sided with McConnell and the rest of the GOP establishment, and preached electoral realism to West Virginians on his Twitter feed: “Blankenship … can’t win the General Election in your State … Remember Alabama.” Even Donald Trump knows there is such a thing as too much crazy.
The populist left is has not been as nihilistic as the Trumpian right. But the fact that Kucinich won the endorsement of Our Revolution, the organization Sen. Bernie Sanders founded to help elect progressives in his mold (though Sanders did not offer Kucinich his personal endorsement) indicated a belief that a little crazy shouldn’t get in the way of a ideologically pure platform.
Kucinich’s 2008 presidential campaign was hampered by his claim of a UFO sighting, and the occasional singing outburst. His flirtations with the brutal dictator of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, are less funny but still deeply weird. But some progressives, including Kucinich himself, wanted to prove the point that many of Kucinich’s left-wing positions that were once considered fringe have been mainstreamed, most significantly single-payer health care. A Washington Post profile last month claimed Kucinich had earned “vindication.” He represented “the future of American politics” as he was tapping into the public’s “yearning for something ostentatiously different.”
Then he got beat by 40 points to a former government bureaucrat with Democratic establishment support.
Of course, Richard Cordray is not just any former government bureaucrat. He is the first chief of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the brainchild of Elizabeth Warren and one of the most concrete legacies of Barack Obama’s presidency. Even though Warren was passed over for the CFPB post in favor of Cordray (later taking a Senate seat as a consolation prize), she gave her protege an enthusiastic endorsement for his gubernatorial campaign, crediting him for forcing “Wall Street to return nearly $2 billion to the workers, retirees, and investors of Ohio.”
But Cordray is not “ostentatiously different.” He is a fairly standard Democrat, embracing active government but stopping well short of democratic socialism. He’s stylistically bland, incapable of a Bernie-like viral moment. But he does have a record on holding banks accountable that populist progressives like Warren can easily get behind.
The Berniecrats from Our Revolution could have joined Warren in support of Cordray on those grounds. But they got hung up on Cordray’s refusal to support single-payer health insurance, and hammered Cordray’s past “A” rating from the NRA. (Considering that in 2017, Senator Sanders and his supporters had no problem with gun-friendly economic populist candidates like Montana’s Rob Quist and Kansas’ James Thompson, it’s safe to conclude Cordray’s health care stance was the more significant ideological heresy.)
If Our Revolution thought that Kucinich’s past oddities would be seen as charming in light of the Democrats’ recent shift leftward, then they were sorely mistaken. Last month, Kucinich amended a disclosure form to the Ohio Ethics Commission showing he was paid $20,000 by a pro-Assad group for a speaking engagement. After taking heat for initially defending the organization, Kucinich returned the money, claiming he didn’t know about its ties to the regime.
Then in the waning days of the campaign, Kucinich made a fateful appearance on Fox News, where he had been a paid contributor. Upon being told that Cordray called him Fox’s “house poodle,” Kucinich responded wordlessly, with nothing but a cringe-inducing growl. When the host quoted an anonymous Democrat saying Kucinich carried politically devastating “funky baggage,” the candidate shot back, “Uptown funk won’t give it to you.” (The Cordray campaign eagerly shared the clip on Twitter.)
A few days later, bland beat crazy going away. So instead of unifying around Cordray and amplifying a message that Democrats should stand squarely against Wall Street, Our Revolution unwittingly helped prove Democrats don’t need to run on single-payer to win swing state primaries, and ran the risk of turning the clock back to the not-so-distant-past when Bernie Sanders’ platform was breezily dismissed as a wish list for kooks. Similarly, conservatives who want to keep expanding their anti-establishment ranks will want to avoid being defined by cranks such as Blankenship. If crazy is going out of style, activists and operatives on both sides of the ideological divide may be inclined to step up their candidate vetting.
The good news is that those across the ideological spectrum who worry that our democracy might be coming apart at the seams can rest a little easier after Tuesday night. It may well be that the public is no longer looking for the craziest son of a bitch for every elected office in the country. One president is more than enough.