The conventional account of Kansas’ Republican primary elections earlier this week is that moderation is, at long last, making a comeback in the GOP. The New York Times editorial board:
Moderate Republicans who have been fighting off extinction ventured onto the primary ballot this week in the deeply red state of Kansas and scored a dozen impressive victories. The insurgents knocked off conservative loyalists of Gov. Sam Brownback, whose disastrous experiment in trickle-down economics has busted the state budget and angered voters suffering from slashed services.
This clearly tells a part of the story. We have been closely following the budgetary carnage wrought by Brownback’s aggressive supply-side tax cuts; it’s not a surprise that the state’s Republican voters were looking for a less dogmatic approach to fiscal policy.
At the same time, with the GOP in such a profound state of flux, it’s unclear which wing of the party really deserves the “moderate” label and which deserves the “radical” one. The most-watched race in the Sunflower State was between incumbent Congressman Tim Huelskamp, a Tea Party favorite, and Roger Marshall, a “pragmatic” compromiser backed by agricultural interests. To the Times, Marshall’s unlikely victory epitomizes the resurgence of the old Republican center:
While they were at it, Republican voters chose to send Representative Tim Huelskamp into retirement after a six-year career as one of the leading Tea Party obstructionists in Washington. His defeat was a setback as well for two of the naysaying lawmaker’s right-wing backers — the Koch brothers’ political money machine and the Club for Growth, a conservative advocacy group.
Here’s the problem: Huelskamp, who is ideologically committed to libertarian small-government principles, has not endorsed Donald Trump. Neither has Ted Cruz, his highest profile Congressional ally, or the Koch brothers, who have supported his campaigns. Marshall, on the other hand, has declared his support for the Republican nominee—who himself won a Republican primary by running against the party’s fiscal orthodoxy. Surely the Times doesn’t consider support for Donald Trump—whom it has repeatedly called a racist and an extremist—a mark of moderation.
That’s not to say that Marshall won because he embraced the party’s nominee, or that Huelskamp lost because he declined to do so, as Rush Limbaugh and other Trump-sycophants have suggested. It merely highlights the fact that the definition of “moderation,” in the modern GOP, is a moving target. The media has pronounced Marshall to be a moderate, despite his embrace of Trump, because he rejected the Tea Party’s hard-line small-government agenda in favor of a more accommodationist, pro-corporate approach. Huelskamp is an extremist, despite his conspicuous rejection of Trump, because of his genuine support for slashing government programs. By these standards, many #NeverTrump conservatives are extremists, and the Trump collaborators are sensible centrists.
David Brooks, among other commentators, has argued that the key political division moving forward, at least within the GOP, will be less whether the government is big or small, but whether society is open or closed. Since commentators came up with “moderate” and “extremist” categories for Republican politicians during the Tea Party wave, tectonic plates shifted below the party’s feet. Issues of fiscal purity are taking a backseat to questions of trade, immigration and nationalism. These issues did not feature prominently in the Kansas primaries, which have been described as a referendum on the state Tea Party leadership’s rabid tax-cutting. So while the results do suggest that the GOP is turning away from small-government orthodoxy, they do not necessarily signal the arrival of a more moderate party—at least, not in the way that New York Times editorial writers are hoping for.