The rise of the conservative outsider

On an Election Day chock-full of surprising GOP victories around the country, the most stunning upset was trucker Edward Durr's all but assured triumph over long-serving Senate president Stephen Sweeney (D-N.J.) despite having little name recognition or campaign resources.  That New Jersey 3rd District's residents supported a virtually unknown candidate, with no prior experience in public office, over a powerful political veteran is representative of the GOP's recent embrace of non-traditional politicians.  This phenomenon is an intriguing offshoot of the populist, Trumpian iteration of the Republican Party.

Consider the Republicans' nominees for president prior to Trump.  George W. Bush and Mitt Romney come from prominent political dynasties. John McCain, who ran in 2000 and won the nomination in 2008, had served in Congress since 1982, first as a representative and then as a senator.  Even in 2016, the initial frontrunner was another member of the Bush Dynasty: former Florida governor Jeb Bush.

The GOP ultimately decided in that cycle to move in an entirely different direction, nominating businessman and entertainer Donald Trump, who prevailed in the general election.  Trump was everything his predecessors were not: brash, controversial, aggressive, and a self-promoter.  He energized his supporters and detractors alike with polarizing comments.  Perhaps Trump's most endearing quality is that he neither talks nor acts like a typical politician; he speaks his mind, and damn the consequences.  Unlike the conservative establishment, Trump was willing to fight back against the hypocrisy of our cultural institutions, from the NFL to Hollywood to Ivy League universities, even if his tweets were often exasperating.  After crushing electoral defeats in both the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, it was clear that a new approach was needed, and for many, Trump served as the perfect middle finger to the political establishment.  Regardless of what Trump decides to do in 2024, his 2016 victory has created ripple effects that ensure that his legacy will play a prominent role in the future of the conservative movement through his populist surrogates.

Consider the slate of GOP candidates in 2021 and 2022.  The leading Republican candidate in the California recall election was conservative talk show host Larry Elder, who had no prior experience running a campaign.  Newly minted Virginia governor-elect Glenn Youngkin similarly was a political novice, having previously worked in the private sector as co-CEO of the Carlyle Group.  The leading 2022 GOP Senate candidate in Pennsylvania is Army veteran Sean Parnell, whose political experience is limited to an unsuccessful run for Congress in 2020.  In Ohio, author J.D. Vance of Hillbilly Elegy fame is among the frontrunners for Senate.  Ditto for venture capitalist Blake Masters in Arizona.  Perhaps the most prominent example is former football star Herschel Walker, who is running for Senate in Georgia, following in the footsteps of another famous football star and outsider, Rep. Burgess Owens (R-Utah), elected to Congress in 2020.  There is thus a trend of prominent Republican candidates leveraging their wealth or celebrity status to run for statewide office despite no experience in public office, following the path blazed by Trump.

This strategy does not guarantee electoral victories.  A range of prominent celebrities have run for office with only marginal success; just recently, "Caitlyn" Jenner, despite widespread name recognition, barely earned single-digit support during the California recall.  Fame or wealth alone is insufficient when running for public office.  The message must also resonate and inspire.  Time will tell whether other candidates can achieve the same electoral success as Trump, Youngkin, and Owens.

In that light, Edward Durr is the ultimate political outsider, lacking the wealth and celebrity status of the GOP candidates described above, which makes the prospect of his victory all the more remarkable.  Indeed, he is modest to a fault: when asked what he would do on his first day in office, he simply replied, "I really don't know.  That's the key factor.  I don't know what I don't know, but I will learn what I need to know."  This honest response is a far cry from the polished, pre-packaged answer we've come to expect from our politicians.  Indeed, the learning curve will likely be steep; it is a logical assumption that Durr has not had access to the same staff of political consultants that, say, Herschel Walker has.  But despite these challenges, Durr has one major advantage that will serve him well in his political venture: you would be hard-pressed to find any candidate who is more intimately familiar with the needs of his constituents because he truly is one of them.

Durr's candidacy is perhaps the most notable example of the conservative movement embracing a non-traditional candidate.  After decades of uninspiring candidates and stagnant ideas within the conservative movement, outsiders like him are desperately needed.

J. Allen Cartwright writes about interplay of politics with cultural and scientific institutions.  He can be followed on Parler at @jallencartwright.

Image: Ninian Reid via Flickr, CC BY 2.0 (cropped).

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