New book traces the rise of the modern Republican Party

Montana’s Melcher held up as only one of a few who beat conservatives’ attempt at unseating him

By: - February 9, 2021 3:11 pm

Tuesday Night Massacre book cover (Courtesy University of Oklahoma Press).

As the second impeachment trial of former President Donald J. Trump begins, the Republican Party faces an impeachment of its leader and struggles to keep control of its members. On one hand, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia has taken taken to social media to forward conspiracy theories while Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming is fending off her own state GOP party censuring her for not backing Trump.

It has left many wondering: How did this happen?

That question has been the subject of many recent books by political operatives and former leaders. However, author Marc C. Johnson traces the evolution of the modern Republican Party back to the election of 1980, not with the election of Ronald Reagan, but the “Tuesday Night Massacre” in which four longtime senators lost their seats because they didn’t understand the political sea change that was happening.

“I had the same questions that a lot of people had. How did we get here and how did we find ourselves here with the party embracing authoritarianism?” Johnson said.

In Johnson’s book, he points out that maybe the only successful Democrat to rebuff these new types of political attacks was Montana’s Sen. John Melcher in his 1982 re-election. Melcher saw what was happening and responded with a different type of message than had been typical in Montana politics.

Johnson’s book, “Tuesday Night Massacre: Four Senate Elections and the Radicalization of the Republican Party,” was published this week by the University of Oklahoma Press.

Most people remember the election because of Ronald Reagan, the president often identified by current conservatives as the model for the party. However, Johnson argues that Reagan was a moderate, and what happened in the Senate during that election was much more significant than Reagan. In fact, Johnson said the real father of the modern Republican Party was former Arizona Republican and 1964 Presidential nominee Barry Goldwater.

“These weren’t issue-oriented politicians, they were highly ideological,” Johnson said. “They weren’t out to remake (the Republican Party), but take it over.”

Johnson’s book also considers the National Conservative Political Action Committee, founded in part by Roger Stone. The committee targeted four liberal, long-serving members of the Senate with direct-mail and personal attacks, something not often used before then. Those four liberals were Frank Church of Idaho, George McGovern of South Dakota, Birch Bayh of Indiana and John Culver of Iowa. Among the winners in 1980 were Chuck Grassley and Dan Quayle.

“The Ronald Reagan style was really anathema to many of them,” Johnson said. “They thought that Reagan had surrounded himself with squishy conservatives.”

Johnson’s book not only details the new way of advertising and campaigning through media like direct mail, he also delves into the strategy of the NCPAC and its aggressive tactics.

“Goldwater was the most consequential loser in America history,” Johnson said. “He appealed to an element who wanted a hard edge to conservativism and wanted to be provocative. Now, the scorched-earth politics and attacks on someone’s patriotism has become a fixture in how political campaigns are run.”

For example, NCPAC strategists targeted “low information” voters who were swayed by emotional appeals and played on a distrust of “elites.” The advertising even went so far as to call the liberal senators “baby killers” for their support of reproductive rights and charged they were unpatriotic, even though two of the four were decorated World War II veterans.

It wasn’t just the advent of new political strategies and different media that helped reshape the party. It was also a change in campaign finance law, which allowed independent groups like NCPAC to raise money so long as they were independent from the campaign.

“The book provides substantial evidence that considerable coordination not only took place, but that NCPAC actually recruited candidates and then operated independent campaigns to support them against Democratic incumbents,” Johnson said.

One of the only politicians to successfully thwart the new tactics was Sen. John Melcher of Montana, who ran for re-election in the midterm of 1982. Conservative groups like NCPAC targeted him, but he responded in kind when groups tried to portray the former veterinarian from Rosebud County as out-of-touch and not Montanan. NCPAC ran more than 1,000 ads against the incumbent, according to Johnson.

Those ads claimed that Melcher was “out of step with Montana” and “too liberal” even though, as Johnson pointed out, Melcher had supported Reagan’s tax cut, opposed abortion and endorsed school prayer.

Melcher’s team countered with an ad of its own, portraying a shadowy figure stepping off a plane, carrying briefcases full of money. Two cows in a field, harkening to “Doc Melcher’s” status as a rural animal vet, had a discussion.

Montanans, the announcer said, know “bull when they hear it.”

One cow says, “those city slickers badmouthing ol’ Doc Melcher.”

A second cow replies, “One of them was steppin’ in what they had been trying to sell.”

The ad was enormously successful and had employed the same emotional response that NCPAC had championed against other Senate Democrats.

“Melcher had authenticity — and it showed how his opponents were not being authentic,” Johnson said. “The challenge is how we reconnect with the rural West in a way which doesn’t play into stereotypes.”

Still, even though Johnson’s book has focused on the significant changes in the Republican Party, the effects of such emotional marketing and ideological purity has left its mark on all of American politics.

“There used to be a big tent theory, but that big tent is collapsing from the center and the moderates in both parties have disappeared,” he said. “There used to be conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans, but even those most conservative Democrats today are more liberal than the most liberal Republicans.

“There is a lot of common ground but right now, tribalism is more important than finding common ground. Is there still the common good? Will it swing back toward reasonable, and will Biden, who knows inside deal making, make it possible? I guess we will find out in the next few years and even the next few months. We need a strong principled conservative party and a strong principled liberal party.”

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.