Robert “RJ” Regan should have cruised to victory. Sure, he’s a touch eccentric, but Regan’s willingness to offend effete sensibilities and express the right’s most inexpressibly radical thoughts is what led him to beat his more conventional Republican rivals in Michigan’s 74th House district primary. In a district that voted Republican by 26 points and which Donald Trump won by 16 points in 2020, the primary is all that should have mattered. But on Tuesday night, Regan lost a special election to his Democratic opponent, and it wasn’t particularly close.
As of this writing, Democrat Carol Glanville won the race for this state House district with 52 percent of the vote to Regan’s 40 percent, while a full 8 percent of voters opted to write in a protest vote. Regan’s defeat shaves the Republican Party’s majority in Michigan’s lower chamber down to just four seats. It was an avoidable loss—one Michigan’s GOP tried mightily to avoid. After all, Regan won the nomination by being what Republican Rep. Thomas Massie derided as “the craziest son of a bitch in the race.”
He positioned himself as a rabid advocate for decertifying the results of 2020’s presidential election. The election was “stolen,” he insisted, and it was his job to somehow take the presidency from Joe Biden and “give it back to the rightful owner.” He was an indefatigable believer in the fluid logic that justifies Russia’s unprovoked war of territorial expansionism in Ukraine, going so far as to oppose a nonbinding resolution condemning Moscow’s aggression. Ukrainians perhaps deserved their horrific fates because their nation was “one of the most corrupt countries in the world,” and was actively preparing to “unleash a biological weapon” somehow, somewhere. And because the “mainstream media” lies about Ukraine, you certainly cannot trust them when it comes to “experimental” vaccines for Covid, which “is nothing more than the flu.”
“Having three daughters, I tell my daughters, ‘Well, if rape is inevitable, you should just lie back and enjoy it,’” Regan joked during a live-streamed event in March. We can only guess this was an attempt at humor because he pivoted quickly back to the 2020 election—the implication being, one assumes, that the state’s Republican voters endured their own metaphorical sexual assault. And like so many hopeless paranoiacs, Regan dabbled in anti-Semitism. “Feminism is only applied against white men, because it has absolutely nothing to do with protecting women as a sex or defending the feelings of individual women,” he wrote in 2021. “It is a Jewish program to degrade and subjugate white men.”
Of course, Michigan’s Republican Party knew their primary voters had driven the party into an abyss. Conservative institutions and Republican electoral apparatuses did their best to guide the party’s voters toward more viable candidates, to no avail. The GOP’s primary voters got what they wanted: not a lasting political victory at the polls but a thumb in the eye of those who dared warn against touching that hot stove.
This cautionary tale could have broader relevance with primary season now fully upon us. In Tuesday’s Senate primary race in Ohio, Trump-endorsed candidate J.D. Vance emerged victorious. It’s entirely unclear which Vance Ohio’s Republicans will get for their votes—the thoughtful, Ivy League-educated author and elite lawyer with somewhat nationalist sensibilities, or the ideologically malleable provocateur who never met a fringe figure he wouldn’t legitimize. Whether Vance believes what he says or not, he has also spelunked down the same lunatic rabbit holes into which Regan consigned his political career.
“If you wanted to kill a bunch of MAGA voters in the middle of the heartland, how better than to target them and their kids with this deadly fentanyl?” the former resident of downtown San Francisco pondered in an interview with a far-right outfit that is presently being sued over its allegations of ballot stuffing in 2020. This thinly veiled allegation of mass murder by the Biden administration pairs well with Vance’s thinly veiled allegation that the White House engineered the border crisis that has so imperiled Democrats in the American Southwest. “It does look intentional,” he said. “It’s like Joe Biden wants to punish the people who didn’t vote for him, and opening up the floodgates to the border is one way to do it.”
Vance has sought to ingratiate himself to the isolationist wing of the GOP, professing “I really don’t care what happens to Ukraine one way or the other,” even though most Americans—indeed, most Republicans—certainly do. But he couldn’t resist seasoning this expression of callous parochialism with a dash of persecution complex. “The same people who have obsessed over Ukraine and Russia over the last two weeks are the same people who tried to take down a democratically-elected president, Donald Trump,” Vance mused. And while Vance has steered clear of many of the right’s worst instincts in the post-Trump era, he has surrounded himself with some of the Republican Party’s most irresponsible conspiracists.
J.D. Vance is not Robert Regan, and the state of Ohio is not Michigan’s 74th House district. Vance is the favorite to win his race in November. But so, too, was Regan. The last thing the GOP should want is for local races to become referenda on individual candidates rather than an up or down vote on the Democrats’ record in office. It would be foolish if Republicans trust the state’s partisan lean to do all the heavy lifting for them. After all, in terms of policy, the brand of populism Vance espouses sits comfortably in the mouths of both his Democratic opponent and Ohio’s senior U.S. Senator.
Despite the many advantages Republicans enjoy today, a bad candidate can still lose a winnable race. And there are many theoretically winnable races in play this year in which Republican primary voters have the opportunity to sabotage their party’s political prospects. Candidates and campaigns matter, and you cannot count on partisan politics and the fundamentals of a given election year to do the work. If you could, we’d be calling Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell, Richard Murdock, and Todd Akin “Senator.”