Yeah, this is going to be a problem for Jonathan Steitz (And the GOP).
Let’s start by stipulating that candidates can’t always control either (1) who supports them or (2) how wacky their supporters might be. This is a particular complication of the digital era, where a candidate may have little or no control over how his supporters go about campaigning on his behalf.
But this brings us to the awkward situation in which state senate candidate Jonathan Steitz finds himself: One of the more bizarre outliers of local politics has attached himself to his campaign. As unfair as it may be to Steitz, nullification-advocate/secession enthusiast/John Bircher Michael Murphy and his small group of true-believers are often the social media face of the Steitz campaign.
This is a problem for a challenger like Steitz. In his race against former senator Van Wanggaard in the 21st District primatry election, Steitz wants to be seen as the outsider… but this outside? Because it’s harder to get farther outside the mainstream than Murphy.
"I have only two words for Ryan," Murphy wrote on Facebook. "(Expletive) him!"
This is, however, just the Cliffs Notes version. Despite being member of the state GOP's executive committee, vice chairman of its 4th Congressional District caucus, and chair of the Milwaukee County Republican Party's south branch, Murphy wrote this about his local congressman:
"F**k Ryan and his bullsh*t fallacy arguments!!"
"I don’t believe Ryan at all anymore. He says one thing and always does the opposite."
Of his state’s senior senator, Ron Johnson:
"RoJo is dead to many of us now. And I’m going to make the best effort to see he is challenged in the next republican primary."
"BELLING; THE STAFFER WHO COMPLAINED AGAINST KRAMER WORKED FOR @SpeakerVos !! Well, we now know who solicited the complaint and ran with it!’
Full disclosure, like other conservatives, I have also from time to time been the focus of Murphy’s ire. After I declined to have my picture taken with him at the GOP state convention, for example, he tweeted a picture he had photo-shopped of my severed head on a stick held by Vos. Murphy is nothing if not classy.
Then, of course, there was his role in pushing nullification/secession.
Featured in the video is Brion McClanahan, a neo-Confederate history professor who edits a journal
aimed at countering the effort "to strip young white Southerners, and arguably black Southerners as well, of their heritage."
Now, he is all-in for Jonathan Steitz. And his support is front and center in the same social media sites that he has used to push his other attacks and causes.
He and close friend Tamra Varebrook (who often tag teams with Murphy online) have made themselves a seemingly ubiquitous presence in the Steitz campaign. At times, it seems as if he is photobombing the campaign.
Here he is at a parade with Steitz. (Murphy is at the far right. Varebrook is next to Steitz’s wife.)
Here they are at a local GOP headquarters in their matching Steitz t-shirts. ( And, yes, I'm sure the governor's folks are thrilled that he is posing next to Walker signs.)
Not surprisingly, his social media feed is filled with attacks on Wanggaard, who he has accused of "quite possibly dabbling in political corruption and criminality!"
Granted, other candidates -- including Wanggaard -- have attracted their share of sketchy characters. But it is difficult not to associate the Steitz campaign with Murphy and vice versa. And this is a problem in a senate primary that has become increasingly toxic, pitting various Tea Party factions against one another.
As he so often does, Murphy has inserted himself into the center of it all.
Asked to comment on Murphy’s role in his campaign, Steitz responded:
I’ve been encouraged throughout this campaign by the enthusiastic support of countless volunteers, and we’ve worked hard to direct that enthusiasm in a manner that best serves the campaign. Michael Murphy is one of many that are supporting my campaign, he has never held a formal role. While I am grateful for the varied support I have received throughout this campaign, in no way should the support of my campaign by anyone be interpreted as any sort of endorsement of their personal beliefs or actions
Steitz has run a smart and energetic campaign, garnering impressive endorsements from groups like American Majority and WILL's Rick Esenberg. In order to beat Van Wanggaard, he needs to portray the former incumbent as an insufficiently conservative establishment figure. But Steitz also needs to avoid coming off as an inexperienced newcomer surrounded by crackpots. Plus, if he wins on August 12, Steitz will become a high profile member of the GOP senate majority – and the face of a new, energetic conservatism in Madison. That will also make him a very big target.
As I’ve written in the past, conservatives need to address the crackpots in their midst. William F. Buckley’s decision in the Sixties to read the John Birch Society out of the conservative movement was a critical milestone in the rise of the modern conservative movement. But the challenge is no less serious today, especially as the Left/media is determined whenever possible to paint the GOP as "extremist."
In Wisconsin, they need look no farther than Michael Murphy. He is a problem that, sooner or later, Steitz and other Republicans are going to have to confront, publicly and decisively.