I don’t mean to keep rehashing our unique primary election outcomes. But I’ve been asked the same question several times since the last go-round: “How did Republicans lose control of their own party?” It’s a query that could use a little explanation. At least mine.

Long ago and far, far away … early ‘70s would be a good place to start … the GOP had the White House, congress was convivial … except for the brewing Nixon scandal … and things were bumping along. Lethargy began to slip into the topmost party ranks.

Out in the hinterlands, especially small western states, the fringe elements were metastasizing. Many were Birchers or Liberty Lobby members trying to root out subversives in government, abolish the IRS and the federal reserve, generally spending their time whispering about conspiracies of one sort or another. Republican leaders paid them little mind because, come elections, they’d always turned out and always voted Republican. Nuts. But loyal.

As more mainstream members were just coasting along, these people gradually began to flow into the vacuum of local leadership: block captains, precinct committeemen, door knockers and the other often forgotten jobs that are, in fact, the strength of the whole party. Other Republicans thought little of it except that the boring volunteer jobs were being done. Life was good. But a takeover was in the works.

Soon, candidate names were appearing on the ballot. Many the mainstreamers hadn’t heard of or, if they had, their comments had been derisive. “Right wing.” “Crazies.” “Bircher.” “Forget ‘em.”

What was happening, in many cases, was local party leadership had slowly moved to the right. And these folks controlled the nominating or candidate selection processes. Moderates, if there were any … and they could get on the ballot … often found little local party support with money and volunteers. Local party people were working for the other guys; the “nuts” as it were.

So moderates wanting to get to the public trough had to steer right to get that support. And those already at the trough moved in the same direction for the same reasons. Little by little, degree by degree, the Good Ship GOP turned toward the horizon on the right.

Given a few local elections, some of these fringe people got on school boards, city councils, county commissions and even the legislature. From those inside positions, it was only a short step to using the newfound access to go for national office. Look at Sarah Palin’s route: local city commission, city council, mayor, governor.

It was an insidious process. Quiet. Cancer-like. Moderates in office and in party leadership were, in some states, eliminated. Purged.

So, in 2010, states like Idaho … which has the same number of U.S. Senators as New York or Pennsylvania … could produce this official party platform: abolish the federal reserve, the Dept. Of Education and EPA; revert to the gold standard’ pay taxes in gold or silver; all candidates must sign a loyalty oath to get party help. And, oh yes, get rid of the IRS. That was the official 2008 Idaho Republican platform taken to the national GOP for inclusion.

That’s kind of a quick-and-dirty explanation of how the Republican party could produce Michele Bachmann, Christine O’Donnell, Sharon Angell and Palin. Mix in the always-present caterwauling of Limbaugh and Beck and the other bellicose purveyors of lies and innuendo to fertilize the new GOP crop and the end product is what you see now.

Which puts the issue squarely up to whatever moderates are left in the party. Yes, Virginia, there are some. They’ve swallowed hard for a long time and put up with the fringe. The “base.” But they’ve gotten so far away from the rest of the party that many can’t keep swallowing more and more swill. Gridlock is turning to concrete.

Do the mainstream disaffected folk begin a purge of their own? Do they muscle out the local precinct people and move the candidate selection process back to the middle? All of that is a lot of hard work. Or do they form a new party?

Conversely, do the righties hang on to what they labored so long and so hard for? Do they tell the others to take a back seat? Or take a hike? Or do they form a new party?

Democrats, who seem incapable of leadership when they get it, are watching all of this with some glee. They had best not overplay their hand. This is serious stuff for Republicans. The survival of a viable national political party is on the line. Formation of a third party with either a hard right or one with a moderate base is quite possible.

This country was designed as a two-party nation. If we do wind up with three, it could forever alter our national direction and our political infrastructure. It might also be very, very painful to watch.

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