Owning the Libs: A strategy for success?

Betty BeanKnox Scene

Last year, the Knox County Republican Party dodged a big hairy bullet.


Its name was Matt Gaetz.

The local political geniuses had booked the Florida Man as guest speaker for the annual Lincoln Day Dinner, and were doubtless disappointed when pandemic-induced restrictions on indoor gatherings forced them to cancel the event, which is their major party fundraiser.

Gaetz’s attention-seeking stunts – like strapping on a gas mask to ridicule House facemask requirements – had brought him torrents of publicity during an otherwise undistinguished career as a member of Congress. And those performances, plus his relentless cheerleading for Donald Trump, had made him a Republican superstar.

So, it was little wonder that the locals were proud to announce that Gaetz was coming to town. His MO, which can be pretty much summed up in three words – Own the Libs – suited them just fine.

Owning the Libs was – and is – a popular pastime in Republican circles during the Age of Trump, which of course is still going strong in places like Knox County.

So Gaetz’s antics made him wildly popular on the far right, thus giving the GOP faithful more than one reason to be sad when Lincoln Day got canceled and deprived them of a lib-owning, thigh-slapping, money-making kind of good time. Now, however, the news that Gaetz is under investigation for sex trafficking, aggravated by the newfound willingness of congressional colleagues to tell reporters that they wish he’d stop pestering them with photos of his naked girlfriends, is about to make the bouffant-haired congressional clown a pariah in most of the known world.

But all is not lost for the faithful. Who needs to import a professional from inside the Beltway to own a few libs? Certainly not the newly-elected Knox County Republican Party chair, whose plan to take over the oozing pustule of socialism that is Knoxville city government pretty much follows Gaetz’s lib-owning model. And yes, I’m tarring him with the activities of the “Roving Patriots” who are sending out silly postcards trashing city council incumbents using language identical to his own.

Here’s the problem with Owning the Libs: Hard-shell Republican activists do not understand city voters.

Tennessee’s largest cities are blue dots on an otherwise bright-red map. Although city elections are non-partisan and candidates do not campaign on party lines, Knoxville, Nashville, Memphis and Chattanooga have Democratic mayors and most members of Knoxville City Council are Democrats. And the mainstream Republicans here are not conservative enough to satisfy diehard Trump followers, who don’t seem to have noticed that city voters aren’t buying what they’re selling – even when it’s not malarkey like the county chair and the patriotic rovers are spewing.

Accusing an incumbent of liking Kamala Harris is unlikely to be seen as a stinging indictment by most city voters, who voted for Biden/Harris over Trump/Pence by a 59.1 percent to 39.9 percent margin.

Broken down by district (in the districts where incumbents are up for re-election):

  • District 1, incumbent Tommy Smith, went for Biden 60.5 – 39.5.
  • District 2, incumbent Andrew Roberto, favored Biden/Harris 57-43.
  • District 3, incumbent Seema Singh, went for Trump, but it was close: 50.5 – 49.5.
  • District 4, incumbent Lauren Rider, favored Biden/Harris 58.7 – 41.3.
  • District 6, incumbent Gwen McKenzie, went for Biden/Harris 79.9 – 20.1.

Do none of these Rovers bother to look at election returns?

Finally, turnout in city elections is terrible, which Republicans must think they can use to their advantage. Problem with this is, the numbers I just cited were from a high turnout presidential election, which is not particularly friendly to the notion that there’s a vast universe of unreached city-dwelling Republicans out there waiting to be discovered.

Nationally, Democrats won city voters, pretty much across the board. It might just prove that old maxim: Folks vote with their feet.

* Note: Incumbents are likely to face challenges from the left, as well. Which is another story entirely.

Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.

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