I’m a fan of ironic nicknames: big men named “Tiny,” bald dudes who go by “Curly,” etc. But in politics there’s no nickname more ironic than RINO, short for "Republican in Name Only."
Originally it was supposed to describe Republicans who went along with Democrats for political expediency. In the 1990s, when RINO really took off as a conservative epithet, it was usually aimed at either liberal Republicans like Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter or obnoxious Republicans who relished opportunities to break party ranks, also like Arlen Specter.
Today it basically just means “not MAGA” or “insufficiently Trumpy.”
And that’s the irony, because the so-called RINOs are pretty much the only politicians who actually care about the Republican Party.
The hopes of the GOP in retaking the senate in November depend entirely on a handful of first-time candidates: celebrity TV doctor Dr. Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, former football star Herschel Walker in Georgia, retired general and active crank Donald Bolduc in New Hampshire and, in Arizona, Blake Masters a former libertarian minion of billionaire Peter Thiel.
Aside from being hand-picked by former President Trump, what they all have in common is not just little-to-no political experience but also shallow roots in the Republican Party. And yet, they all vow to take on the RINOs controlling the GOP, and the RINO-in-Chief, Sen. Mitch McConnell.
McConnell is a lifelong Republican who beat Bob Dole’s record as the longest-serving GOP Senate majority leader. He has earned Democratic animosity for decades, not least for orchestrating the conservative takeover of the Supreme Court. But in MAGA land he’s a liberal stooge. Stop laughing.
Meanwhile, Trump, a former Democrat and Reform Party presidential wannabe, had to be talked out of leaving the GOP to start his own party. He’s never put the needs of the party ahead of his own. He uses the term RINO to describe any Republican who crosses him — on impeachment, on his election lies, whatever. He says “'Giveaway' Mitch McConnell” is a RINO “who gives the Dems everything, and gets NOTHING for it — Never fights for Republicans!"
But the obsession with RINOs goes beyond Trump. In a recent interview with MAGA mogul Steve Bannon, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) said that if Masters wins, he won’t vote for McConnell as leader, and that will amount to “cutting the head off the snake” by “defeating Mitch McConnell, the RINO that has controlled the Senate for years now.”
Indeed, Greene believes that was the real reason McConnell’s super PAC, the Senate Leadership Fund, was pulling nearly $10 million worth of ad buys out of Arizona: “Because Blake Masters is not the type of senator Mitch McConnell wants in Washington.”
Of course, it couldn’t be that the race is getting away from Masters, and McConnell is opting to support salvageable races elsewhere, including in Ohio where J.D. Vance, another newbie handpicked by Trump and Thiel, is struggling to win what should be an easy race. The Senate fund last month announced an infusion of $28 million to support Vance’s effort.
Trump has more cash on hand, $99 million, in his Save America PAC than the $80 million the Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee have combined. Trump spent some money in the primaries to take out incumbent Republicans who were insufficiently loyal to him, but since then Save America has given a total of $757,000 to federal candidates and a $150,000 to the Republican Party, according to Open Secrets. In August alone, it spent $3.9 million on Trump’s legal fees.
McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund is spending 10 times that in Georgia alone, to drag Walker across the finish line (On Friday, Trump allies announced a new super PAC — MAGA Inc. — that will allegedly give more money in the midterms, but the real goal is to create a new vehicle to fund a 2024 bid.)
In all of these Senate races, a RINO would have fared better. Arizona and New Hampshire Govs. Doug Ducey and Chris Sununu would have won in a cakewalk but balked at the idea of running amid Trump’s wreckage. Oz barely beat David McCormick in the Pennsylvania senate primary, thanks to Trump’s help, but McCormick would have been the better general election candidate. And pretty much any Republican capable of speaking in complete sentences would surely be doing better than Walker is doing right now in Georgia. But Trump put his needs ahead of the party’s.
Trump accuses McConnell of being a “a pawn for the Democrats,” but Democrats benefit when Trump is in the news, which is why President Biden and the Democrats are trying to make the midterms all about Trump and “MAGA Republicans.” It makes you wonder: Who’s the real pawn?
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.