How Far Is "Too Far" For Today's Republicans?

[ Posted Thursday, May 5th, 2022 – 15:32 UTC ]

It is undisputable that Donald Trump plumbed new depths for what the Republican Party considers "too far" for their own politicians to go. Trump proved that no scandal -- sexual, financial, business-related, personal, factual, political, international interference in American politics, white national, conspiracy theorist, or insurrectionist -- was "too far" for him to go, at least with his own massive and committed base of supporters within the party ranks. Many other Republicans either now in office or running for office have taken this new low standard to heart, as GOP politician after GOP politician is caught in scandals that previously would have forced them to resign or be voted out of office the first chance the voters had. The big unanswered question is whether any standard (no matter how low) even remains within the party for anyone not named "Donald Trump." How far is "too far," these days, for Republicans?

Of course, there are really two standards at play here. The first is what the Republican Party thinks, and the second is what the voters think. We don't have a clear image of either one of these, at this point in the process, but it might become clearer as we wend our way through the primary and general election seasons.

The most interesting development (at least measured by the older: "How scandalous is this?" criterion) is that Representative Madison Cawthorn seems to be under a rather direct and brutal political assault, which is coming from within his own party. Is this smear campaign being directed by the Republican Party (the older "establishment" machine, to be specific)? Or is it just disgruntled people who used to be close to Cawthorn who for whatever personal reason want to destroy him? Nobody's really sure, but whatever motivations are in play, it's impossible to ignore the almost blackmail-like leaks that have been popping up in the past few weeks.

Madison Cawthorn is a Dumpster fire even before all of this appeared, it is worth noting. He told a number of lies about his personal life while running for office (he even lied about the accident which left him partially paralyzed), and he went to visit Adolf Hitler's vacation house -- because (in his words) it had been on his "bucket list for a while." A letter signed by 150 alumni of the college he attended (before dropping out) accused Cawthorn of "sexually predatory behavior." These barely scratch the surface of Cawthorn's past, I should mention -- there are a lot of other disturbing incidents as well.

And then there's the story of how he met his ex-wife, which (to put it mildly) raises a few questions:

Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) did an interview with the Daily Caller ahead of his wedding describing the way that he met his wife after a trip to Stockholm, which ended up with him visiting a casino in Russia.

According to Cawthorn, the traveling group he was with took a ferry to St. Petersburg to gamble. That's when he met a new friend, an Army captain from Miami. Arriving back in the U.S., the captain, whose name is "Todd," lied to Cawthorn to get him to come to a fake Crossfit competition in Miami. When Cawthorn got there, all he found was a girl that "Captain Todd" wanted Cawthorn to meet. She ultimately became Cawthorn's wife, but the couple announced they'll divorce after just 8 months together.

There's no investigation into Cawthorn's trip or allegations about the "casino" he visited in St. Petersburg. Right now, it's merely activists asking questions and suspicion. However, the reason that the questions are coming up, is that this isn't the first politician who has faced questions about whether a close contact could be a foreign asset.

In the past few months, Cawthorn has had: more than a few serious legal problems (getting caught speeding twice while driving on a revoked license, getting caught -- also for the second time -- trying to bring a loaded gun on an airplane, etc.), an ethical problem in Congress (a cryptocurrency insider-trading scheme) which has resulted in a Republican senator requesting a House Ethics Committee investigation, and an interview where he accused his GOP buddies in Congress of inviting him to snort cocaine or participate in orgies.

It was perhaps that last one that might have gone "too far" for the Republican Party establishment. Since Cawthorn didn't name names, all Republican members of Congress now have to deal with the occasional question from constituents about whether they've been holding any cocaine parties or wild sex orgies in Washington. Embarrassing, to say the least....

Mind you, this was all before the blackmail-like leaks started. There have been three major bombshells so far, each getting increasingly bad-looking for Cawthorn. First, Politico published photos of Cawthorn dressed in women's lingerie while he was in public, yukking it up. His explanation: he was on a cruise, it was just some goofy fun.

The second was the revelation of a video of Cawthorn's "close male friend and staff member" putting his hand on Cawthorn's (clothed) crotch, after Cawthorn says: "I feel the passion and desire and would like to see a naked body beneath my hands." The staffer (described as "close aide and scheduler") is Stephen Smith, 23. He also is Cawthorn's cousin, according to one of his spokespeople. Here's how their relationship was reported in the Daily Mail:

Among the many allegations is the claim that representative for North Carolina's 11th district provided thousands of dollars in loans and gifts to [Stephen] Smith, a staff member, with whom, the complaint states, he is engaged in an improper relationship characterized by steamy postings on social media and so close that the staffer joined [Madison] Cawthorn on his honeymoon to Dubai in April 2021.

According to the filing Cawthorn has provided free housing, travel and loans to Smith, none of which have been declared or repaid.

The complaint also requests an investigation into the nature of Cawthorn's relationship with Smith stating that the junior member of staff lives with Cawthorn.

Smith, they report, lived "at Cawthorn's Hendersonville, North Carolina, home throughout the representative's brief marriage."

This was an exhaustive dump of scandalous material, which included a Venmo payment history showing multiple payments between the two, with flirty messages like: "For loving me daily and nightly," "The quickie at the airport," and "Getting naked for me in Sweden."

Most recently, another staff scandal popped up (apparently Cawthorn is hiding a bunch of money he's been paying to his chief of staff, prompting another ethics complaint). But the third bombshell was the release of a video of Cawthorn naked in bed with another man, while Cawthorn apparently forcibly performs pelvic thrusts on the guy's face, with a third guy (the one filming, perhaps) saying: "Stick it in his face!"

Cawthorn's explanation? He was just "being crass with a friend, trying to be funny."

Nobody's quite sure what the big picture is, in all this. Is it just a former (or even current) disgruntled employee paying Cawthorn back for something? A former lover, perhaps? A blackmail scheme where Cawthorn refused to pay, so the videos were leaked? Opposition research by one of his Republican primary challengers? The Republican Party establishment savaging one of its own for going too far? Your guess is as good as mine, but it seems a particularly vicious campaign coming from someone determined to destroy Cawthorn politically -- one with extraordinary access to these personal videos, photos, and screenshots.

We'll just have to wait and see what the voters in his district think about all of this. In Cawthorn's case, whichever candidate wins the GOP primary is almost certain to win the seat in November, so we'll find this out sooner rather than later.

Which brings me to my second point -- the voters themselves. This Tuesday a special election was held for a seat in the Michigan statehouse, in a district that hasn't elected a Democrat in 30 years and that voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump. Here's what happened, and why:

Democrat Carol Glanville defeated her Republican opponent in a special election Tuesday for a Michigan state House seat. Glanville won by 11 points, 51 percent to 40 percent, even though the district has been represented by Republicans for decades.

Of course, Republican Robert Regan was an exceptionally damaged candidate. He gained notoriety when video recently surfaced of him suggesting that he tells his daughters to "lie back and enjoy it" if "rape is inevitable."

The average vote percentage Democratic candidates have gotten in this district over the past decade is only 38 percent. That is a monumental swing, obviously because the voters just could not bring themselves to elect a guy who would tell his daughters such an odious thing. To put it another way, Regan went too far. For the voters.

Voters in Republican primaries are sometimes pretty lenient when choosing their nominee. They can overlook all kinds of scandalous or just downright bizarre behavior. But winning the primary doesn't always guarantee winning the election, even in red states. General election voters can recoil from a candidate for things the Republican voters have accepted. Not always, but it does happen.

Interestingly enough, a lot of the GOP candidates that crash and burn in this fashion do so on the subject of sex -- specifically rape. The late Todd Akin likely lost his Senate race in Missouri after answering a question (about why he was against a rape exception to an abortion ban) with the following absolutely false notion:

Well you know, people always want to try to make that as one of those things, well how do you, how do you slice this particularly tough sort of ethical question. First of all, from what I understand from doctors, that's really rare. If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.

This is going to be pertinent in this year's campaign (obviously) because abortion and rape/incest exceptions are going to be front and center of the political discussion. If the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade (as is now expected), then a whole lot of Republicans are going to have to answer this or very similar questions. Their stance of "no abortions for rape or incest victims" is not very popular, so there will doubtless be some interesting quotes that might prevent more Republican candidates from winning in November.

Nobody knows what is going to happen, of course. We're just at the start of the primary season, after all. Some very flawed candidates -- complete with histories of sexual assault and worse -- are quite likely to get the Republican nomination for multiple races. Some of them may still win, especially in very red states. Some may be rejected in the general election for being too extreme, though -- for going too far.

The Republican Party has been through this sort of thing before. It wasn't just Todd Akin, Republicans lost other Senate seats due to scandalous or just downright bizarre statements or behavior from their candidates (Christine "I Am Not A Witch" O'Donnell springs immediately to mind, as does Roy Moore).

Trump, of course, doesn't care about scandals. Why should he? He's survived all of his, after all. And plenty of his Republican base voters go right along with turning a blind eye to it all. Madison Cawthorn may even be re-elected, although that is looking more doubtful by the day.

Come November, after the election results are in, one way or another we'll all have a clearer answer for: "How far is 'too far' in today's Republican Party?"

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


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