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Trump crashes final days of Texas special election

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Former Rep. Ron Wright and his wife, Susan Wright, are pictured during his ceremonial swearing-in with with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Though several Republican candidates were openly running in the MAGA lane, Trump and his legacy didn’t dominate the race until the final weeks. There was a behind-the-scenes jockeying for his endorsement by allies of some leading GOP candidates, and on Monday he made his allegiance known and endorsed Wright, a clear power play that comes with some risk.

Saturday’s voting almost certainly won’t be the final word on the race — in Texas special elections, the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, advance to a runoff if no candidate wins a majority. Prior to receiving Trump’s endorsement, Wright had high name recognition but less campaign cash than her GOP opponents.

The Club for Growth lured Trump off the sidelines after spending some $150,000 on ads painting Wright’s main opponent, state Rep. Jake Ellzey, as an “anti-Trump” Republican, citing a donation from Bill Kristol, the conservative commentator and Trump critic.

“He wants to be with winners, but he also wants to show that he’s still the leader of the party,” said David McIntosh, the Club president and former Indiana congressman who encouraged Trump to back Wright. “That was our goal — to make it a race where Trump’s endorsement really mattered.”

Neither Ellzey nor Wright has discussed the former president much on the trail or made him a central theme of their campaign. Trump also bypassed endorsing another top candidate, Brian Harrison, a former health official in his administration who has constantly linked himself to the former president.

The Club for Growth said it invited tens of thousands of Republican voters in the district to the virtual event on Thursday, including “low-propensity Trump voters.”

Though Trump’s appearance on the town hall was brief, he breezed through a large number of topics, blaming Biden for everything from high gas prices to the border crisis. He also predicted Republicans would retake the House and celebrated his 2020 victory there.

“I appreciate the big win we had in Texas,” he said.

Yet Trump’s entrance onto the special election stage adds an additional wrinkle. Even before his endorsement, there was some uncertainty over how helpful a presence he would be in a district that has a fair number of Biden Republicans. Trump only won it by 3 points in 2020, even as the late Ron Wright won by 9 points.

“The reality with Trump is that Trump had tons of supporters. But he also has a lot of people that were not as heavy supporters from both parties,” Rick Barnes, the Tarrant County GOP chair who is backing Wright, said in an interview last week. “A lot of people have moved on, beyond all of that, realizing that that future may or may not include Trump. And so we can’t continue to sit around and let that be the lead conversation.”

Most polling from both parties shows a four-way race to make it into the yet-to-be-scheduled runoff with three Republicans — Wright, Ellzey and Harrison — and Democrat Jana Lynne Sanchez, who ran for the seat in 2018, all in the running.

The larger field of Republicans includes some interesting characters, including Dan Rodimer, a former pro wrestler who ran for Congress last year in Nevada; Sery Kim, a former Trump administration official whose nativist rhetoric disparaging Chinese immigrants lost her key endorsements; and Michael Wood, who is running as an explicit anti-Trump Republican with the backing of Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.). But none has gained much traction.

While Wright enjoys high name ID in the district, Harrison, a former chief of staff at the Health and Human Services department, has raised the most money and is the only one running broadcast TV ads. Ellzey, meanwhile, has a strong base in Ellis County, which includes a sizable swath of GOP voters, but he has had to weather a barrage of negative ads against him. (He also has outside groups supporting him.)

Ellzey has largely avoided mentioning Trump on the trail, instead touting a forward-looking message. He’s spending the final day of campaigning on Friday touring the district with former Gov. Rick Perry, who also served in Trump’s cabinet.

“I think he did a lot of good things for our country,” Ellzey said of Trump in an interview last month. At the time, Ellzey said he would have appreciated Trump’s endorsement, but added: “I run my own campaign, right? I am not responsible for anybody else’s words, actions or deeds.”

In much of the early campaign, Wright also treaded carefully around Trump, stressing her support for his policies and her long career in local Republican politics. Before he passed away following a battle with Covid-19, Ron Wright was a reliable Trump supporter, including voting to reject the 2020 presidential election results in Arizona and Pennsylvania.

McIntosh, who said he speaks with Trump about downballot races from time to time, encouraged him to back Wright and made him aware of their attacks to cast Ellzey as anti-Trump. It was Trump, he said, that suggested the tele-town hall.

This district, which includes the Fort Worth-centered Tarrant County and its southwest suburbs, is one of nine Republican-held seats in Texas where Trump got less than 51 percent of the vote. Because Ron Wright carried the district easily, even as Trump’s support cratered, this race could reveal more about whether surbuban voters were just souring on Trump or on the Republican Party more broadly.

Democrats in the race are hoping for the latter and are eager to make a play for traditional Republicans who punched their ballots for Biden in 2020 — but first, one of them has to advance on Saturday. Besides Sanchez, nonprofit leader Shawn Lassiter and 2020 state House candidate Lydia Bean have also emerged as credible Democratic candidates.

“Nothing could be a worse omen for the Democratic Party than to have a winnable district like this with two Republicans in the runoff,” Sanchez said in an interview, warning about a splintered Democratic electorate. “That would be very embarrassing and very disheartening.”

In fact, deprived of their chief villain, who juiced fundraising and especially turnout, Democrats are staring down the possibility of a shutout because of Texas’ top-two rule to make the runoff.

Their struggles in the district stand in stark contrast to the blockbuster special elections of the last four years, when their party’s candidates were buoyed by small-dollar donors eager to send a message to Trump. With Democrats now in control of Congress and the White House, the party’s candidates have to work harder to illustrate the stakes of electing a Republican to Congress.

“People are still trying to win using the Trump playbook,” Bean said. “And we can’t rest until we really show them that that doesn’t pay, that they’re gonna lose.”

National Republicans are eager for a Democratic shutout — though they concede that’s, ironically, less likely now that Trump has weighed in. Regardless, the GOP will be favored in a runoff against a Democrat.

And Wright’s supporters say she would enter the runoff in strong position. She hasn’t run as an unabashed MAGA supporter, but she now carries Trump’s endorsement.

“We look for candidates that are the combination of two things,” McIntosh said of the Club. “They really have a grounding and understanding of limited government principles, and can appeal to those Trump primary voters so they can unite all the different elements of the Republican Party.”

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How Republicans Became the ‘Barstool’ Party

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How Republicans Became the ‘Barstool’ Party

A half-decade ago, the originally Boston-based site and its rabid fan community wouldn’t have scanned as “political” at all. But now, its proudly Neanderthal, reactionary ethos aligns perfectly with the side of our political binary that Trump reconfigured: the one whose common denominator is a tooth-and-nail, middle-finger unwillingness to accept liberal social norms.

If you looked at Portnoy circa 2010 — a budding bro-entrepreneur, popping champagne with models in cheesy photo shoots — you’d have to squint pretty hard to see a potential Republican standard-bearer. If you look now, it’s hard not to. It’s commonplace by now to observe that the Trump presidency “changed everything” for Republicans, from conventional wisdom on policy to how their internal politics are conducted. But first and foremost, it changed the face the party presented to the world. Where onetime nominees like Mitt Romney and John McCain tried and failed to subordinate cultural grievance to a more professionalized, inclusive style of politics, Trump succeeded by placing it right on the front of the tin. And when he casually dismantled that old fusion of free-market economic fervor and country-club traditionalism, Barstool was ready.

The rise of the “Barstool Republican,” to coin a phenotype, doesn’t necessarily explain Trump. It is, however, a useful way to understand what’s happened to American politics without constantly invoking the former president’s name. Portnoy’s devotees aren’t MAGA fanatics or Q fans who live to torment liberals, and they’re certainly not part of the GOP’s evangelical base. (One could imagine the last thing they’d want is a Supreme Court that strikes down Roe.) But the Barstool Republican now largely defines the Republican coalition because of his willingness to dispense with his party’s conventional policy wisdom on anything — the social safety net, drug laws, abortion access — as long as it means one thing: he doesn’t have to vote for some snooty Democrat, and, by proxy, the caste of lousy deans that props up the left’s politically-correct cultural regime.

The backlash to liberal domination of pop culture and the past decade’s transformation of speech norms created the Barstool Republican long before Portnoy’s name was bandied about in jest as a political candidate. And if you’ve been paying attention, their cultural revolution dates back to a time when such antics were more likely to get you kicked out of Mar-a-Lago than installed as its lifelong “El Presidente.”

***

Lost in the annals of a time when culture wars weren’t quite as central to our national politics is a nomenclature that now seems almost quaint: the so-called “South Park Republican.”

As far back as 2001, the gadfly conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan was using the term to describe members of his political tribe who shared the anti-P.C., socially libertarian views of “South Park” creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker. Stone and Parker, true to form, loudly protested their hatred of both major parties. Still, the label stuck, inspiring sparring New York Times columns and even a book-length exploration of the concept by conservative writer Brian C. Anderson.

In the political climate of the mid-2000s, the concept’s appeal was obvious: As Gen X-ers and younger Baby Boomers entered the ranks of the political elite, it made sense that they would dispense with the blue-blooded stuffiness and social conservatism of the Reagan-Bush imperium in favor of a vaguely countercultural, post-Sixties tolerance. W traded his father’s country-club affect for a pair of cowboy boots, but he wasn’t fooling anyone: The cultural energy in the Republican Party, to the extent that it had any, was in its feather-ruffling libertarian wing, whose influence would soon reach its zenith with the self-proclaimed Ron Paul Revolution. But like so many would-be revolutions, this one was denied — or at least delayed and mutated.

Paul’s 2012 bid to become the Republican Party’s presidential standard-bearer fizzled out in spectacular fashion, failing to convert internet hype into any meaningful primary support. Romney won the nomination and invited the youthful Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan along for the ride (whose rad workout gear and politically inscrutable love of Rage Against the Machine, alas, failed to inspire a Romney-Ryan youth movement).

Crashing on the rocks of both Barack Obama’s megawatt cultural celebrity and the looming coronation of Jeb Bush as the post-“autopsy” face of the GOP, the Rude Republican cohort was at loose ends — until an unlikely salvation came in the form of a 6’3” reality show host and frequent Howard Stern guest descending his golden escalator into the first paragraph of 21st-century American history.

Trump was at first an uneasy fit for both the more culturally-sophisticated, libertarian-leaning members of the Republican coalition as well as their staid religious counterparts. But at the same time he was hotwiring Republican culture and pushing it to the limits of street-legality, anti-P.C. critics saw another revolution happening within liberal politics — and, by the transitive property, pop culture writ large. In their eyes, Hillary Clinton’s campaign represented the triumph of a pro-establishment cultural nanny state that rejected Obama’s attempted de-escalation of the culture wars in favor of a rigid new etiquette of social justice: A rainbow flag hoisted, in effect, over the Bushes’ Kennebunkport compound.

One of Trump’s early adopters articulated the mindset perfectly in August 2015, back when Jeb! was still his closest primary threat: “I am voting for Donald Trump. I don’t care if he’s a joke. I don’t care if he’s racist. I don’t care if he’s sexist. I don’t care about any of it. I hope he stays in the race and I hope he wins. Why? Because I love the fact that he is making other politicians squirm. I love the fact he says shit nobody else will say, regardless of how ridiculous it is.”

No points for guessing the author: Dave Portnoy, birthing the Barstool Republican with a single 200-word blog post. Trump transformed the political landscape by tapping into a powerful desire for freedom from criticism or censure — a desire that Portnoy shared, and which has only grown more intense and widespread as the panopticon of social media becomes the primary stage for not just national politics, but civic life at every level.

In a column this February for The Week, the Catholic social conservative writer Matthew Walther referred to “Barstool conservatives” as primarily sharing a “disdain for the language of liberal improvement, the hectoring, schoolmarmish attitude of Democratic politicians and their allies in the media, and, above all, the elevation of risk-aversion to the level of a first-order principle by our professional classes.” In other words: culture-war issues.

Oddly enough, despite the inherent thirst for conflict that it brings, the ascent of Barstool-ism within the Republican Party can be chalked up to ideological diversity within the GOP. What could unite free-market libertarians, revanchist Catholics, Southern evangelicals, and working-class Reagan Democrats but their shared hatred of… actual Democrats?

With that as the party’s guiding principle, and no clear policy agenda to speak of — the 2020 RNC literally did not have a new policy platform — those willing to trash the Democratic cultural regime most loudly and consistently are firmly in command, with more staid Republicans forced to at least provide cover, if not actively follow their cues.

They’re forced to defend freshman North Carolina Rep. Madison Cawthorn in the face of his attention-seeking tweets and allegations of sexual harassment from his (very recent) college days, while he ranks in the top 10 members of Congress in missed votes. They’re forced to defend Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz as he faces his own allegations of sexual impropriety — not to mention his frat-boy antics, like showing up to Congress in a gas mask in the earliest days of the coronavirus pandemic. They’re forced to defend Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert as she fends off complaints from constituents about her “embarrassing” freshman term in Congress, after winning a primary and general election largely on the strength of her, well, bar ownership.

So just as anti-P.C., vaguely amoral Barstool-ism can be a strength, it can also be a weakness. In a media environment built to reinforce and intensify one’s ideological beliefs, being on the attack all the time can leave you in an exhausting state of constant defense. Yes, it can galvanize — nearly 75 million people voted to re-elect Donald Trump, the Stoolie-in-chief — but it can also exasperate and infuriate in turn — a record 81 million Americans voted for Trump’s purposely less-pugilistic opponent, Joe Biden. It also runs the risk of all novelty: that people might just bore of it. Yesterday’s provocation becomes today’s status quo, and in turn tomorrow’s epic cringe.

When Republican voters made Trump their presidential nominee in 2016, they chose gloves-off culture war over either Jeb Bush’s earnest compromise or the imitations of a careerist provocateur like Sen. Ted Cruz. Trump tapped into a very real dissatisfaction in the American electorate with the liberal status quo around speech and culture, and reaped both the attendant rewards and backlash. Someone like Dave Portnoy is, if not a viable presidential candidate, at least a credible successor to the role of the office’s last Republican occupant: Trump, Gaetz, Boebert, Cawthorn and their ilk all share Portnoy’s single-minded obsession with scoring headlines and affirming their constituents’ cultural identities at any cost.

In a media-obsessed world, it’s a powerful, intoxicating skill. And now that it’s proven a viable pathway to electoral success, Republicans are — perhaps wisely — clinging to it for dear life. As a creation of Judd Apatow, the 21st century’s great dorm-room comedy auteur, once said: “Pandora doesn’t go back in the box, he only comes out.”

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Driver crashes into Florida Pride parade; mayor says 1 dead

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Driver crashes into Florida Pride parade; mayor says 1 dead

News outlets reported that the driver of the pickup truck was taken into custody. Authorities did not immediately give details about the victims or say whether they believe the crash was intentional.

“This is a terrorist attack against the LGBT community,” Trantalis told reporters. “This is exactly what it is. Hardly an accident.”

Photos and video from the scene showed Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz in tears while in a convertible at the parade. A spokesperson for Wasserman Schultz did not immediately return an email seeking comment.

Spectator Christina Currie told the South Florida SunSentinel that she was with her family at the start of the parade.

“All of a sudden there was a loud revving of a truck and a crash through a fence,” Currie said. “It was definitely an intentional act right across the lanes of traffic.”

Wilton Manors police tweeted Saturday night that the public is not in danger.

“A tragic incident occurred at today’s Stonewall event,” Wilton Manors Mayor Scott Newton said in a statement, according to WPLG-TV. “Out of respect for everyone involved, the parade has been canceled and a thorough investigation is being conducted.”

June is Pride Month, commemorating the June 1969 police raid targeting gay patrons at the Stonewall Inn in New York that led to an uprising of LGBTQ Americans and served as a catalyst for the gay rights movement.

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Hard-line judiciary head wins Iran presidency amid low turnout

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Hard-line judiciary head wins Iran presidency amid low turnout

In initial results, former Revolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezaei won 3.3 million votes and moderate Abdolnasser Hemmati got 2.4 million, said Jamal Orf, the head of Iran’s Interior Ministry election headquarters. The race’s fourth candidate, Amirhossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi, had around 1 million votes, Orf said.

Hemmati offered his congratulations on Instagram to Raisi early Saturday.

“I hope your administration provides causes for pride for the Islamic Republic of Iran, improves the economy and life with comfort and welfare for the great nation of Iran,” he wrote.

On Twitter, Rezaei praised Khamenei and the Iranian people for taking part in the vote.

“God willing, the decisive election of my esteemed brother, Ayatollah Dr. Seyyed Ebrahim Raisi, promises the establishment of a strong and popular government to solve the country’s problems,” Rezaei wrote.

The quick concessions, while not unusual in Iran’s previous elections, signaled what semiofficial news agencies inside Iran had been hinting at for hours: That the carefully controlled vote had been a blowout win for Raisi amid the boycott calls.

As night fell Friday, turnout appeared far lower than in Iran’s last presidential election in 2017. At one polling place inside a mosque in central Tehran, a Shiite cleric played soccer with a young boy as most of its workers napped in a courtyard. At another, officials watched videos on their mobile phones as state television blared beside them, offering only tight shots of locations around the country — as opposed to the long, snaking lines of past elections.

Balloting came to a close at 2.a.m. Saturday, after the government extended voting to accommodate what it called “crowding” at several polling places nationwide. Paper ballots, stuffed into large plastic boxes, were to be counted by hand through the night, and authorities said they expected to have initial results and turnout figures Saturday morning at the earliest.

“My vote will not change anything in this election, the number of people who are voting for Raisi is huge and Hemmati does not have the necessary skills for this,” said Hediyeh, a 25-year-old woman who gave only her first name while hurrying to a taxi in Haft-e Tir Square after avoiding the polls. “I have no candidate here.”

Iranian state television sought to downplay the turnout, pointing to the Gulf Arab sheikhdoms surrounding it ruled by hereditary leaders, and the lower participation in Western democracies. After a day of amplifying officials’ attempts to get out the vote, state TV broadcast scenes of jam-packed voting booths in several provinces overnight, seeking to portray a last-minute rush to the polls.

But since the 1979 revolution overthrew the shah, Iran’s theocracy has cited voter turnout as a sign of its legitimacy, beginning with its first referendum that won 98.2% support that simply asked whether or not people wanted an Islamic Republic.

The disqualifications affected reformists and those backing Rouhani, whose administration both reached the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers and saw it disintegrate three years later with then-President Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal of America from the accord.

Voter apathy also has been fed by the devastated state of the economy and subdued campaigning amid months of surging coronavirus cases. Poll workers wore gloves and masks, and some wiped down ballot boxes with disinfectants.

If elected, Raisi would be the first serving Iranian president sanctioned by the U.S. government even before entering office over his involvement in the mass execution of political prisoners in 1988, as well as his time as the head of Iran’s internationally criticized judiciary — one of the world’s top executioners.

It also would put hard-liners firmly in control across the government as negotiations in Vienna continue to try to save a tattered deal meant to limit Iran’s nuclear program at a time when Tehran is enriching uranium at its highest levels ever, though it still remains short of weapons-grade levels. Tensions remain high with both the U.S. and Israel, which is believed to have carried out a series of attacks targeting Iranian nuclear sites as well as assassinating the scientist who created its military atomic program decades earlier.

Whoever wins will likely serve two four-year terms and thus could be at the helm at what could be one of the most crucial moments for the country in decades — the death of the 82-year-old Khamenei. Speculation already has begun that Raisi might be a contender for the position, along with Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba.

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