Tom Campbell’s unconventional GOP candidacy drawing widespread support in US Senate race

As long-time watchers of the California Senate Primary are already well-aware, Tom Campbell appears poised to capture the nomination to face Barbara Boxer, in what looks to be one of the most competitive races of the Senator’s career.

It is also no secret that Campbell’s popularity has persisted even in the teeth of attacks by rivals Carly Fiorina and Chuck DeVore, attacks which allege that Campbell is less than a Republican’s Republican. To be sure, some of these attacks have failed largely because they were poorly constructed (at times comically so), but their persistence in dogging Campbell is a sign that they resonate, given that campaigns don’t tend to repeat tactics which are self-evident failures.

And to be sure, there are good reasons why such attacks would resonate, especially given the unconventional timbre of Campbell’s candidacy, which straddles the line between establishmentarian moderation and cerebral conviction. This is not the obvious campaign choice for a Republican candidate to make, given the overwhelming fury currently circulating among the party faithful surrounding the present regime, a fact upon which San Jose Mercury News columnist Mike Zapler remarks in a recent column

“At a time when conservatives’ rage at Washington is in full force, and conservatives viewed as less than pure are being driven from the Republican Party, is there room in the GOP for a mild-mannered professor with nuanced, against-the-grain views on the issues?” Zapler asks, without providing a direct answer.

The question is not entirely fair, given that there is no necessary contradiction between being “mild-mannered [and]…nuanced” and being firmly in the conservative wing of the GOP.  However, to the extent that Zapler describes Campbell’s positions as “against the grain,” his point bears some interest, especially given that it is part of a larger debate within conservative intellectual circles on the topic of “epistemic closure.” Patricia Cohen of the New York Times explains:

     The phrase is being used as shorthand by some prominent conservatives for a kind of closed-mindedness in the movement, a development they see as debasing modern conservatism’s proud intellectual history. First used in this context by Julian Sanchez of the libertarian Cato Institute, the phrase “epistemic closure” has been ricocheting among conservative publications and blogs as a high-toned abbreviation for ideological intolerance and misinformation.

The charge is familiar, as it has its roots in the Nelson Rockefeller campaign of 1964, which alleged that dangerous “extremists” had taken over the GOP and systematically purged the non-extreme elements. The mere fact that Zapler has posed the question of Campbell’s ideological fit may, therefore, materialize as an attack line against him, given the GOP base’s historical distrust of press admiration for particular candidates.

Even so, in the context of figures like Scott Brown and Chris Christie, being a heterogeneous conservative has become much more respectable among the party rank and file, especially when one is running in States that historically tend blue. On the surface, Campbell fits this mould all too well.

Yet, the attack line of “moderation” still persists, and Zapler outlines its root persuasively as follows:

     Much of the criticism of Campbell stems from his decision last year, while a candidate for governor, to endorse a package of temporary tax increases to help balance the state budget and avoid what he argues would have been unconscionable cuts to public schools. He also backed a one-year, 32-cent increase in the gasoline tax.

This sort of behavior will prove to be troubling from the perspective of fiscal conservatives, especially those with concerned about the education budget, which accounts for at least 40% of California’s spending. At the same time, however, Campbell also possesses an impressive Federal record as a former member of Congress which may blunt these attacks, especially in light of his attempt to distinguish Federal service from State service via the existence of balanced budget amendments at the State level.

What is more, while Campbell has blips on his record, he has managed to avoid the classic Rockefeller mistake of attacking the party’s conservative base for being out of step with American society, opting instead to embrace the tea party movement and the recently passed Arizona Immigration Law.

Thus, while the cerebral and nuanced tone of Campbell’s candidacy is no doubt a far cry from the implicitly purist notes sounded by Chuck DeVore and the now explicitly Palinite messaging of Carly Fiorina, it does carry enough room for reasonable doubt to blunt charges of closeted liberalism and keep Campbell at the head of the pack.