The Republican Party needs to be saved, according to a handful of budding politicians in New Jersey, who label themselves FIRE Republicans. They aim to pull the party away from entrenched candidates and extremism, and back to the people's party of Lincoln and Roosevelt.
"If a house is on fire, and you run away from it, it burns down the whole neighborhood," said founder, Dana Wefer. "Republicans are on fire, and we need to put it out so it doesn't take down our whole democracy. We need to run toward the fire."
FIRE is an acronym for Fighting the Institutional Republican Establishment. Wefer, a serial campaigner focused on participation over winning, ran in New Jersey's 2017 Republican primary as a candidate for governor. Two other FIRE Republicans are running for house seats in New Jersey's 2018 elections, and Wefer is on the lookout for more candidates to run.
"We are overdue for a political realignment," Wefer said in comments for IVN, "and Trump has been a disaster."
Wefer and her colleagues, Lindsay Brown and Martin Hewitt, want to change the dialogue around the Republican brand, and rekindle the spirits of Lincoln and Roosevelt -- honoring inclusiveness and environmental conservation.
Wefer explains that right now 'Republican' and 'Democrat' are toxic brands.
"It will only take 10-15 FIRE Republicans to change the dialogue," she said. "New discourse stops the spin."
"When people hear 'Democrat' or 'Republican,' there is a whole set of assumptions that come with it," said Wefer.
The parties are not inherently conservative or progressive, in her view, and in a sense everyone is progressive. Currently, the American electorate "shares certain core values that are not represented by either party," she said.
"Labels are a bit of a problem," said Martin Hewitt, who is running in New Jersey's 11th congressional district. Hewitt says he is a proud Republican, but a strong centrist.
"If this country is going to survive, we all need to think bigger than Republican and Democrat," he said.
Hewitt believes that women's rights, universal health care, and the environment can be Republican ideals. He also believes in a strong military, but does not want to see entire programs, vital to culture and human survival, completely cut to compensate.
Hewitt says he expects some people to disagree with him, but, he says, "If I say something you don't like -- don't walk away, challenge me. Let's find answers together."
Lindsay Brown, FIRE Republican candidate in the 7th District, said on Jersey Matters that "progressive policies have broad appeal in her district." She is also committed to accessible health care, and the environment.
However, Brown also aligns with traditional Republican values as well. She is, for instance, a fiscal conservative.
"I love progressive ideas, but we need to think about how to pay for it -- nothing is free. There are a number of ways to fund initiatives, but before they are put forward, we better have a plan to pay," she said in an interview for IVN.
The Republican Party is a home for FIRE Republicans for several practical, non-ideological reasons:
- Both districts have been taken by Republicans since the 1980s, largely thanks to redistricting;
- The Republican primary is the most consequential U.S. election; and
- The GOP is more open to competition from new candidates.
"The Republican Party is the more useful party to take over," said Wefer.
The FIRE Republicans' core strategy is to focus on the primaries, and focus on the Republican Party.
Brown and Hewitt both say that entrenched Republicans are too comfortable, consequently serve themselves, and have lost their ability to serve the people.
Hewitt says the people have been hurting, and problems aren't getting solved. He argues that this is largely because Republicans "have gotten themselves in a corner."
For example, he says most people want the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, to be fixed, not repealed, but it is politically toxic for Republicans to serve the people's interests on the matter.
"Let's take what we agree with, and get that done," said Hewitt.
Brown says she believes in common sense American values, and that means fighting institutional Republicans.
"The same people keep winning. We need a voice to represent the people of New Jersey's 7th District."
FIRE Republicans are firmly anti-establishment, says Wefer. They don't need to get involved in the Republican establishment. They don't even need Republican votes, she said. What they need is to get people to join the Republicans.
"Unaffiliated voters are a huge opportunity," said Brown.
Brown doesn't need an insurmountable voter turnout to get her place on the Republican ticket in the 2018 general election. According to Brown, she only needs about 100 signatures to get on the Republican primary ballot, and about 15,000 registered Republican voters to check her name to win the nomination.
In her Republican-held district, if she wins the primary, she de-facto wins the general election.