The Wackadoodle Wave

If 1994 brought the Republican Revolution and 2010 delivered the Tea Party to D.C., the 2022 election may bring something even more extreme.

An elephant with a tin-foil hat, on a red background
Adam Maida / The Atlantic; Getty

About the author: David A. Graham is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

In November 2020, the Republican Derrick Van Orden narrowly lost his attempt to unseat Representative Ron Kind in Wisconsin’s Third District, falling just 10,000 votes behind the veteran Democrat out of nearly 400,000 cast.

But Van Orden insisted that voter fraud had tainted the election results. Two months later, the former Navy SEAL was in Washington, D.C., on January 6, “to stand for the integrity of our electoral system.” He later wrote that he was “disturbed” by the violence that day, and never entered the U.S. Capitol grounds. When The Daily Beast uncovered photos showing that wasn’t true, Van Orden said the report was “inaccurate,” but wouldn’t say why. He also spent campaign money while in Washington, an apparent violation of federal election law.

His views on voter fraud are not the only strange things about Van Orden. Last year he entered a library in the town of Prairie du Chien and harangued a 17-year-old library staffer over a gay-pride display, leaving her feeling threatened. (He did not dispute her account.) His commitment to social conservatism only extends so far, though: In a memoir of his military service, he jocularly described tricking two unsuspecting women into looking at a comrade’s swollen genitalia. He has criticized COVID-19 containment strategies, saying that contact tracing is the same as “what the KGB used to do in the Soviet Union and the Stasi used to do in East Germany.” (Van Orden’s campaign did not respond to an interview request.)

In short, Van Orden is an extreme, erratic politician in the mold of Marjorie Taylor Greene, the infamous U.S. representative from Georgia. And come January, he just might join her in the House. Van Orden is running for Congress again, and he is leading the Republican field, with the aid of a Donald Trump endorsement. If he wins the nomination, he’d be favored to win the seat. Kind is retiring, Trump won the district in 2020, and both the Cook Political Report and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball rate the district as leaning Republican in 2022.

Greene may have plenty of other company come January 2023. Driven by Trump and particularly by the prevalence of false claims about fraud in the 2020 election, the Republican Party is nominating more extreme candidates than ever for positions up and down the ballot. Because the electoral environment favors GOP candidates, a crop of people like Van Orden is likely to be swept into office this year, with unpredictable and unsettling results. If 1994 brought the Republican Revolution and 2010 delivered the Tea Party to D.C., the 2022 election may go down as the Wackadoodle Wave.

Candidates on the ballot who have a decent chance at winning include Big Lie adherents; a man widely suspected of being the author behind Q, as in QAnon; a former football star with a history of violence, abusive relationships, and dubious business ventures; and a once-respected doctor who has come to peddle quack cures. Some of the wildest candidates, however, probably won’t be known on the national stage until later. Most attention so far has focused on contested primary races in competitive districts, but solidly Republican constituencies may produce much more extreme candidates who never have much opposition.

When these candidates reach office, whether in Washington, state capitals, or local government, it won’t necessarily represent an endorsement of their views by voters. A handful of dynamics are converging to produce results that can be out of line with the American public. The two major parties have sorted themselves into ideologically homogeneous groups, rather than the mixtures they once were. Polarization, especially negative polarization, means people are motivated as much by loathing of the other party as by any affirmative values. And the collapse of local news means candidates for lower-level offices don’t receive close scrutiny. Together, these factors mean that many general-election voters will vote less based on specific knowledge of a candidate’s views than on the D or R next to their name. Both parties have benefited from that at times, but in 2022, it is good news for the GOP. The opposition party almost always does well in off-year elections, and President Joe Biden’s extreme unpopularity and the stresses of inflation give Republicans a particular boost this year.

But whether voters knew what they were getting into won’t matter much by then. They’ll be represented by officials who believe the Big Lie and other dubious ideas, and have the power to act on their beliefs. At the moment, Greene, Lauren Boebert, and Madison Cawthorn have the power mostly to marshal attention. With a larger group of confederates, they could exert serious sway over the House caucus. At other levels of government, some members of this wave could, for example, have responsibility for overseeing elections.

Take Michigan, where Republicans gathered on April 23 and picked Kristina Karamo as their likely nominee for secretary of state. Karamo gained prominence for her noisy work sowing doubt about the 2020 election. As an observer during vote counts at Detroit’s TCF Center, she alleged various irregularities in counting absentee ballots. She also testified before the state legislature about supposed fraud and participated in lawsuits challenging the election. This was all balderdash: Extensive reviews turned up no serious problems in Michigan’s vote count, and the lawsuits foundered.

But Karamo’s career soared. She’s now running—with Trump’s endorsement, naturally—to be the state officer in charge of election administration. It’s impossible to predict whether Karamo will defeat the incumbent Democrat Jocelyn Benson, but Michigan is usually closely divided, and Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer, atop the ticket, holds only a small polling lead over the GOP challenger, James Craig.

At one time, the political parties were effective at neutralizing the most outlandish candidates, as Jonathan Rauch explained in 2016. The power to endorse, directly fundraise for, and otherwise anoint candidates who were seen as more electable and better able to work with other leaders to enact party agendas helped keep government functioning. But years of assaults on party establishments by activists in both parties have weakened that grip, removing party mandarins’ power and turning voters against the institutions. Meanwhile, gerrymandering and geographic sorting ensure that more and more districts are “safe” districts where whomever the dominant party nominates is likely to win. This removes the need to appeal to moderate voters in a general election.

In 2016, Donald Trump won the GOP presidential primary by running against the party establishment. Now his endorsement has become the most powerful force in many races, because despite his unpopularity overall at the national level, GOP-primary voters revere him. The former president has used that influence to endorse a slew of extreme candidates who are MAGA true believers and to punish candidates who deviate from his line.

The warping effects of Trump’s influence are nowhere clearer than in Arizona, a historically red-purple state that voted narrowly for Biden and elected the Democrat Mark Kelly to the Senate in 2020. Kelly faces reelection to a full term this year. Perhaps the strongest general-election candidate to beat Kelly would have been Governor Doug Ducey, but he enraged Trump by certifying Biden’s election and, facing a barrage from Mar-a-Lago, passed on the race.

That made Mark Brnovich the apparent front-runner. Brnovich is the state attorney general and no one’s idea of a moderate. Insofar as the Republican Party is actively trying to make it harder to vote, Brnovich is out there doing the work: He’s pushed “election security” measures and last year won a U.S. Supreme Court case against the Democratic National Committee that knocked out another pillar of the Voting Rights Act. But Brnovich hasn’t done enough to promote the Big Lie for Trump’s purposes. Although the former president has not made an endorsement in the race, he issued an anti-endorsement statement of Brnovich on April 18, promising to pick a candidate soon. The two likely recipients are Blake Masters, a Peter Thiel protégé best known for his uncanny-valley campaign ads, and Jim Lamon, who was a false elector for Trump. Because Kelly barely won in 2020 and faces a tough environment, whoever wins the GOP nomination probably has at least even odds at winning.

Elsewhere on the Arizona ballot, the leading Republican candidate to replace the retiring Ducey is Kari Lake, a former TV anchor who is a zealous spreader of false claims about election fraud. Mark Finchem, who is running for secretary of state—overseeing elections in Arizona—with Trump’s endorsement, echoes QAnon claims and was present on January 6 as rioters stormed the Capitol. The House committee investigating the attacks has subpoenaed Finchem for information on planning for events that day. Republicans could win either of these seats.

In other cases, candidates who have histories as establishment Republicans—or even as strident critics of Trump—have decided it behooves them to espouse extreme beliefs or act extreme in the hopes of winning his endorsement or, failing that, getting his supporters to vote for them. In Ohio, where both Sabato and Cook think the GOP candidate will have an edge, J.D. Vance won a primary in which he and Josh Mandel jockeyed to say the most outrageous things and win Trump voters—even though Mandel was once a typical mainstream Republican and Vance rose to prominence as an explicit critic of Trump. In Missouri, Eric Greitens, also a former middle-of-the-road governor, has become an ever more desperate Trump acolyte, though his campaign seems to have faded following claims of domestic abuse by his ex-wife.

Democrats have taken some heart—and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has gotten some heartburn—from the motley bunch of Senate contenders, as my colleague Russell Berman recently reported. McConnell may be right to worry that bad candidates lower his odds of taking control of the closely divided chamber, a lesson he’s learned the hard way from Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock, and other nominees who snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

But those fiascoes were the products of what was arguably a very different time in American politics, before Trump. In 2016, some liberals openly rooted for Trump to win the Republican presidential nomination, reasoning that he couldn’t possibly win the general election. Quite obviously, that bet didn’t pay off.

Of the extreme candidates running in 2022, some of them will surely end up defeating themselves by turning off moderate voters in general elections. But the sheer number of candidates running today who would never have made it through a primary in the past, combined with the wave of Republican victories up and down the ballot, means that a huge number of them will be elected to office.

As they do, they’ll be closer to dominating the Republican Party. This year will see a host of departures by moderates as well as leaders who would have been viewed as staunch conservatives in 1994 or even 2010, but who MAGA types now regard as squishes or RINOs for their failure to offer complete fealty to Trump. Along with Ducey, Governors Larry Hogan of Maryland, Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, and Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas are all leaving office, though only Hutchinson is likely to be succeeded by a Republican. Senators Richard Burr of North Carolina, Rob Portman of Ohio, and Roy Blunt of Missouri are departing, all likely to be followed by more radical politicians. In the U.S. House, at least four Republicans who voted to impeach Trump are retiring. The losses may be even more consequential down the ballot, as Republicans who upheld the integrity of the election system in 2020 succumb to attacks.

These Republicans stood for ideas such as low taxes, less regulation, and gun rights, and they often opposed even moderate reforms. Some were regarded in their day as bomb-throwers. But the GOP doesn’t belong to them anymore. Come November, the wackadoodles shall inherit the Republican Party.