Understanding Today's GOP Officials
And Why They React So Lawlessly To Defeats like Issue One
I’ve spent several years trying to explain how the current generation of GOP leaders in gerrymandered states, and now Congress, have emerged in a world with no democracy and no accountability. And how that experience and unaccountable world shape everything they do, and foretells why they react so lawlessly to moments like this week, where they got throttled in Ohio but then immediately pledge to overturn those results.
While I’ve been sharing excerpts from Laboratories of Autocracy to paid subscribers in recent weeks, because of what’s happening in Ohio, today I’m going to share an excerpt with everyone. This is crucial for everyone to understand!
The following excerpt was my attempt two years ago to describe the experiences and warped incentives of the current GOP generation. As this week shows, it all still holds true today—and makes their lawless behavior perfectly predictable:
A Terrible Incentive Package
There are numerous consequences of the extreme gerrymandering that has deprived Ohio and so many states of basic democracy for the past decade. All of them bad.
But something that’s easily overlooked if you’re not on the ground is the cumulative effect: there’s now an entire generation of officeholders in the majority who’ve come to power, remained in power, and in some cases, risen to higher levels of power, without ever winning a contested election. A contested, general election.
Some were appointed to their initial office and never faced one real election. Others…had a single moment where a narrow group of voters mattered, and that was that. The rest of their careers career, the voters have never been given another choice. They’ve never had to campaign again. And for most, that’s the only politics they know.
On the flip side, there’s a generation of folks who’ve aspired to be public servants but are locked out. Completely shut out, no matter their skills or the quality of their campaigns.
I’ve seen both of these patterns up close in Ohio, and they too have a profound effect on politics and incentives in the political system. [I review examples]
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I’ll repeat the reality once again so it sinks in: Extreme gerrymandering has empowered an entire generation of statehouse majorities who’ve never had to win a general election on anything close to a level playing field. If they’ve had to win a contested election at all. I’m not talking about a fraction of politicians. Or half. I’m talking about almost every member of the current majorities. An entire generation of them. [In the book, I review data showing this]
If you’ve been in office without having to win an election in some time, or when you’ve simply been appointed then re-elected without worry, you fear an actual contested election. You haven’t done it in years— maybe you’ve never done it. Your campaign infrastructure no longer exists, if it ever existed. Which means you have to build a campaign organization from scratch, and if you fail, you lose your power. You lose your job. For many, you lose your identity. And for the Cliff Rosenbergers of the world, you lose the incredible life that public office has bestowed upon you.
On a deeper level, if you’ve spent your entire political career succeeding without a real election, you have no connection to the very process of campaigning. The source of your success never came from the people in the first place. And if the biggest risk to staying in power is a real election you have never actually encountered, let alone succeeded in, for many, at least, there’s not a heck of a lot of incentive to create the very condition you fear the most.
But there’s one more thing….If you’ve spent your entire political career in a world without elections and being as extreme as possible because that’s how you succeed in that world, the political record you’ve amassed would guarantee a blowout loss if you ever faced a contested general election. Not only because your political skills are weak. But because everything you did to succeed in the rigged political world is the opposite of what you would need to do to win a close race. You’d never make it in that new world. You’re a fish washed up on the beach, tide receding, and you won’t last long.
Now think of an entire generation having lived and succeeded in that rigged world. A supermajority of the Ohio legislature, in fact. All doomed in a world of non-rigged elections.
Let’s go back to a few of the characters from Chapter One to home in closely at members of this gerrymandered generation. Let’s see just how doomed they’d be.
Recall the state representative who opposed masks because he said they obstructed the face of God. His name is Nino Vitale, and here’s his career. Ohio’s 85th district opened up in 2014 due to term limits, and Nino entered the primary, winning with 54% of the vote. Those 7,000 votes would be the only ones that mattered for the rest of his career (to date at least). He won the general election with no opposition. In 2016, he won the general election with no opposition. In 2018, he faced an opponent—a high school senior, who worked his tail off and showed true courage. Still, Nino won with more than 70% of the vote. In 2020, he upped the number to 91% of the vote, facing only a write-in candidate. In total, this district has been the least close of any of Ohio’s 99 over the past decade. So, no surprise, Nino is not someone who appreciates the majesty of the democratic process. (Although impressively, without facing any elections, he was found guilty of three counts of election fraud.)
Along the way, here are some of the positions Nino’s taken. As I mentioned, he attacked the wearing of masks amid the pandemic, told people not to get tested for COVID-19 as it exploded across Ohio, attacked Ohio’s health director as an “unelected globalist” (no one thought to ask him about his own election bona fides), and supported the effort to impeach the Republican governor. He referred to the GOP governor, Husted the LG, and the health director as the “Trio of Terror.”
But rest assured, his toxic positions go well beyond his response to the pandemic. He railed against helping those in poverty by saying “a little hunger in the belly or being a little cold on some really cold days is a good incentive for me to get up, go to work and provide for my 5 boys and wife.” When faced with a resolution declaring racism to be a public health crisis, he declared that he was “darker” than most members of the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus. And when he got an “F” rating from Equality Ohio, he went on a homophobic rant. Now how do we know all these things this man has said? Some public records request to dig up his secret stash of controversial musings? Nope. He basically posts them on social media all the time. He wants them out there.
On legislative issues, by the way, this guy is the chair of Ohio’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and is convinced that hedge funds are buying up newspapers to run negative stories about the coal industry. Bills he sponsors include the Pastor Protection Act (protecting pastors from being forced to perform same-sex marriages), a bill declaring Ohio a Second Amendment Sanctuary State, a bill establishing legislative oversight over the governor’s health orders, a bill voiding health orders requiring face coverings, a bill loosening “knife regulations,” a bill banning the teaching of “divisive concepts,” and a bill declaring gun possession as “life-sustaining” during the use of emergency powers to suppress riots, mobs, or potential riots or mob. Oh, and he voted against making cock-fighting a felony.
Now, future aspirants in rigged districts, this is how you avoid a primary! One position after the next, all toxic and out of the mainstream as can be. No bipartisan kisses from this guy—heck, the Republican governor is running away from him. In a gerrymandered world, Nino Vitale’s extremist antics are the perfect way to guarantee the election-less path he’s enjoyed. A proactive shield against all right-wing comers.
But throw Nino Vitale into a true democratic process, in a relatively close district, and his career would be over. A record perfect for rigged elections would turn into kryptonite in a world of fair elections and real democracy. He’d likely lose even in a district that was relatively close but leaned Republican. He probably wouldn’t run.
In case you think I’m just picking on the guy from the least competitive district, let’s look at a few more. Take John Becker, the man eager to force doctors to perform impossible surgeries on women at risk of death based on his reading of a 1917 medical journal. He won his initial race by 37% in 2012. He won by more than 50% in 2014. 2016 was a 45% victory. 2018 was a 33% win. (This ranks 26th in the least competitive district average for a decade). Becker only faced a primary in his first re-election, then never again.
How has Becker avoided any real risks to his career? Let’s just say he made sure no one would ever outflank him to his right from the moment he arrived (actually, from long before). Out of the gate, he proposed legislation to allow all state employees to take guns to work, including in the statehouse itself, while prohibiting law enforcement from melting down confiscated weapons: “It literally brings a tear to my eye, because some of them are very nice weapons.”
And while Becker didn’t legislate all his publicly espoused views, like his colleague Nino, he spent a lot of time putting them out there. While they pre-dated his time in office, Becker uploaded years of political musings to his website, including ideas such as expelling Massachusetts from the country because it sanctioned same-sex marriage, comparing same-sex marriage to “polygamy, incest and bestiality,” and establishing “condom-free zones” around schools. His self-titled “Becker Doctrine,” hanging out right there on his website, muses that: Ohio should nullify its membership in the United States to become a “free and fully autonomous state,” (while maintaining a partnership with the US for purposes of the military and foreign affairs); that the federal government, which he calls Frankenstein’s Monster, is a “cancer;” all case law should be deemed “advisory” since the legislature writes the law; and that the 14th Amendment should not be recognized (oh yeah, neither should the 16th or 17th). John dismisses the concern that this all appears like Civil-War style secession with rhetorical flourish: “To argue that the so-called Civil War settled the issue of secession is to argue that ‘might makes right.’” Yes, Ulysses Grant, who was born only miles from this guy’s district, might want to have a word.
Finally, Becker’s public views also stray to the personal. He once let us all know that his daughter’s fiancé was visiting for an upcoming weekend. He was so enthusiastic, he posted a photo in anticipation of the visit, along with this sweet welcome note for all to see: “I’m looking forward to my daughter and her fiancé visiting this weekend. Her room is on the right and the guest bed room is on the left. You can see where dad will be sleeping. And yes, that is a 12-gauge shotgun propped in the corner.” (I can confirm, a shotgun is indeed leaning against the corner above dad’s sleeping bag and pillow, between the two bedroom doors).
By the way, in his re-election campaign, this man was endorsed by the following groups: the National Federation of Independent Business, the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, the Ohio Society of CPAs, the Ohio State Medical Association and the Cincinnati Area Board of REALTORS. Apparently, accountants, among others, are okay with all this. He was also named a 2018 Ohio Farm Bureau “Friend of Agriculture.”
These views all allowed Becker to avoid a primary entirely in two of his three re-election bids, from which he then cruised to easy wins over some hard-working Democratic candidates. But do you think all this would fare well in a district anywhere close to evenly drawn? You betcha it wouldn’t.
Andrew Brenner, the education committee chair who thinks public education is socialism. In 2010, he won a crowded primary by getting 24.4% of the vote—like the others, those 4,203 votes basically made his career. He won that general election 70%-30%. In 2012 (in a new, gerrymandered district), 2014 and 2016, he was elected by 24.92%, 35.88% and 30.5%. By the way, in the grand scheme of Ohio’s statehouse, a 23%-margin average places this district as one of the closer ones. If Vitale had the least close district, Brenner’s district was 48th.
Did this cause Brenner to moderate, or was he still angling to avoid a primary? You can be the judge, but the “socialism” comments about public education—accompanied by a hammer and sickle and a call to “privatize everything”—provide a subtle hint. The year after those comments went viral, he compared Planned Parenthood to Nazis, pushed to eliminate pesky requirements like firearms training or certification for a concealed carry license, while fighting for the essential requirement of cursive handwriting.
These views were conservative enough not only to avoid primaries in two of his three re-election bids, but to mop the floor of his primary opponent for Ohio senator in 2018, where he now sits. Our public school hater is back to leading on education—he chairs the primary and secondary education committee—and is back to comparing things and people to Nazis. On Holocaust Remembrance Day, he pledged “he would not allow the Jewish Ohio Department of Health director to turn Ohio into Nazi Germany.”
But that 2018 senate run did send a warning signal his way—that perhaps his toxic politics might not fare so well in anything resembling a close district. Even in a gerrymandered senate district (the margin was 22.2% in 2014), he won by only 2.7% in 2018. You think he’s eager to have more fair districts come 2022?
The point is, in state after state, we have a generation of political figures whose own participation in the democratic process has been minimal to none. The Nino Vitales, Andrew Brenners, and Jon Beckers have hardly faced the voters. No one in leadership has. They’re not there because they succeeded through any semblance of a robust democratic process. They won a few thousand votes to start, then their path essentially avoided voters from that point on—in part because they took proactive steps to avoid any primary challenge.
A true, robust democratic process scares the hell out of them. And should. Everything they’ve done to succeed in a world of rigged districts would guarantee failure in a world of competitive districts. They’d still blog their outlandish views, but from home as private citizens, not as taxpayer-funded representatives of the state of Ohio.
But there’s one difference between other officials and these statehouse members. They are the people who write the rules of our elections. And/or have leverage over those who do. Meanwhile, they know that real elections are a mortal threat to their existence in politics.
How do you think that’s going to turn out?
A Repeat Loop
So let’s review the incentives and disincentives created by the corrupt and rigged world of statehouses [I established these in detail in a prior section]:
There is no incentive to achieve public outcomes.
There’s a strong incentive to do the bidding of private players whose mission is often at odds with public outcomes.
There is no incentive to work across party lines.
There’s an overwhelming incentive to be as partisan as possible.
There is little to no incentive to stand up against corruption. So long as you’re careful, there’s an incentive to go along with it. There is little incentive to fight for robust democracy and fair elections, but a major incentive—self-preservation, and maintaining the only political world you’ve known—to fight against them.
But I want to highlight one final point. And that is that these incentives don’t work in isolation. They are self-reinforcing. Given the dramatic failures of government, the corruption, and the extremism that is well beyond what Ohioans support, the lack of real democracy becomes an essential ingredient to keep it all going. Without real elections, there’s no check on the poor performance of those in power. There’s no check on the fact that these politicians are pushing agendas that are way out of the mainstream, or amount to legal or illegal bribery.
In fact, the two variables ratchet up together. The more the legislature seals itself off from any accountability, the more extreme they get—and can get—and the further the outcomes can fall, without any diminution whatsoever on their grasp on power. But the more those outcomes plummet, the more everything is about serving private interests or the extremes of one party, the more essential it becomes to avoid real democracy.
Extremism. Poor public performance. Corruption. Election rigging. They all go together, reinforcing one another.
Or to go back to one of our politicians: Andrew Brenner needs more gerrymandering to keep doing what he’s doing.
As he saw with his close race in 2018, he desperately needs less democracy.
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