Growing netroots on the right

How an anti-gay, immigrant-bashing Republican from North Carolina heisted Howard Dean's playbook and raised big bucks on the Web.

Published October 20, 2006 12:17PM (EDT)

Years from now, the history books will likely record Vernon Robinson as the first Republican candidate to ever discuss the libido of aroused college coeds during a live debate with a sitting member of Congress.

"A study that shows pornography to college girls, and then hooks up probes in various places to measure their sexual arousal, is about sex," Robinson told the television cameras Tuesday, in the basement studio of WXII 12, an NBC affiliate. Robinson was attacking his opponent, Rep. Brad Miller, a two-term liberal Democrat from Raleigh, who sat a few feet away. "He voted for sex studies to pay college girls to watch porno movies and measure their arousal," the conservative Robinson announced.

The merits of the charge are not in dispute. There was a 2001-2002 National Institutes of Health study on female sexual arousal that Miller and more than 200 other members of Congress voted against stripping from the federal budget. What mattered was not the relevance of the charge, but that Robinson had captured everyone's attention -- and he was just getting started. Within 40 short minutes, Robinson accused Miller of supporting "San Francisco values," voting to "allow convicted child molesters to come into this country," and co-sponsoring something Robinson nicknamed the "Foreign Homosexual Importation Act," a bill that does exist, under a different name, to allow same-sex partners to sponsor each other for citizenship. In response, Miller alternately rolled his eyes, chuckled to himself and held out his hands in exasperation. "We're back from a quick trip to planet Robinson," the congressman joked at one point.

For months now, Miller has been enduring these onslaughts. In mailings, recorded phone calls and advertising on television and radio, Robinson, who is black, has run a campaign that one local paper compared to the comedy of Dave Chappelle. One radio spot says, "If Miller had his way, America would be nothing but one big fiesta for illegal aliens and homosexuals." Another ad says, "Brad Miller spent your money to study the masturbation habits of old men." A mailing accuses Miller of having a "San Francisco Soul Mate" in Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, a popular liberal blogger at DailyKos.

But it is Robinson himself who may have more in common with the man from DailyKos, at least when it comes to politics in the digital age. He has raised a seven-figure sum for his campaign -- a fundraising success he traces to a most unlikely political mentor, a man he has never met and probably never agreed with: Howard Dean, the chairman of the Democratic Party. National political handicappers give Robinson virtually no chance of winning -- but his campaign has turned on its head the idea that the so-called netroots are the exclusive domain of the political far left. In terms of mustering financial support and doing so fast, at least one candidate on the far right has now successfully jumped into the game.

Robinson's outlandish high jinks have created a lively, inflammatory race, wherein Robinson flirts with demagogy amid the prospect of near-certain loss. As a state legislator, Miller helped to draw his 13th Congressional District into a Democratic stronghold, which presidential candidate John Kerry carried in 2004, even as President Bush won the state. It's a northern block of the state that includes parts of the academic communities surrounding North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina, as well as the federal prison in Butner where former California Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham is serving his sentence for accepting bribes.

The race is so safe for Miller, in fact, that the campaign has baffled outside observers. "I'm a political scientist who looks at people's behavior through the lens of rationality, and Robinson doesn't make sense," says Andrew Taylor, a political scientist at North Carolina State. "He is not going for the median voter."

Still, Robinson's campaign is among the most successful efforts of the 2006 election cycle when it comes to fundraising. Through the third quarter of this year, he has raised $1.5 million for his campaign, about $28,000 more than Miller. While about 40 percent of Miller's money came from corporate and union political action committees, Robinson has raised 98 percent of his money from nearly 24,000 individual donors around the country. He has become, in a word, an Internet phenom, with several popular YouTube videos and a campaign that has raised more than $400,000 online in this election cycle. Many of his donors have no real money to give away. "There are hundreds of people who send in $1, $2 or $4," says Nate Pendley, a lawyer in nearby Clemmons, who is friends with Robinson and has produced his ads. "Obviously we are never going back. Politics has changed forever."

"Essentially, I am doing what Howard [Dean] did," Robinson told me, several hours after the debate, during a drive to his next event. "Howard took a stand, called a spade a spade in the Iraq war, and excited the left." A few moments later, he thought back on the first time he visited the Dean for America Web site during the 2004 primaries, when Dean was running for president. "I was astonished," he said. "I remember looking at that Web site for three hours in horrid fascination. The meet-ups. There were 120,000 people meeting up across the country with one agenda -- kill Republicans. And the Republicans were in this top-down, who-cares-what-the-grass-roots-has-to-say [campaign]."

As Robinson spoke, I gripped the steering wheel of my car with both hands, an audio recorder sticking out from between my fingers. We were traveling through a heavy rainstorm down the accident-strewn roads that connect Winston-Salem to Raleigh, where Robinson was scheduled for a meet-and-greet with college students. Unlike Miller, who had come to the debate with his wife and four well-dressed staffers, Robinson had arrived alone in a rumpled suit, with a bunch of notes folded up in his hand. Afterward, he had gladly accepted my offer to drive him to the next event, in exchange for a chance to speak with him about his campaign. Standing at about 6-foot-4, with the stature of a bear, he fit awkwardly in the passenger seat of my midsize sedan. "I'm a Wal-Mart Republican, not a country club Republican," he explained.

Born in New York, the son of an electrical engineer with a federal job, Robinson was raised in what he described as the ghettos of inner-city Los Angeles. "The Watts riots started about three and a half blocks from my house," he said. At the age of 10, he wrote his local congressman asking for an appointment to the Naval Academy at Annapolis. His congressman responded years later by appointing him in 1973 to the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., where he trained as a nuclear missile launch control officer. "I was on active duty when Ronald Reagan was shot," he said. "I mean, I was in the launch control center."

Though his mother had volunteered for the ill-fated presidential campaign of Democrat Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, Robinson switched his registration to vote Republican for Ronald Reagan in 1980. He said he was driven from the Democratic Party by his disgust with the liberal teachers unions, whom he blamed for the decline of urban schools, the welfare state that led to welfare dependence for many blacks, and by his attraction to the entrepreneurial spirit of Republicans. He also lost trust in Democrats' ability to protect the country. "The Russians were on the march right after I graduated," he said. "They invaded Afghanistan and [President Jimmy] Carter was shocked."

After being relocated by the Air Force to Missouri, he nonetheless took an internship with Alan Wheat, a Democratic state legislator who went on to serve 12 years in Congress. "He showed up to work early, stayed late, and couldn't learn enough," said Wheat, who now works as a lobbyist in Washington and remembers Robinson well. "I just can't remember us agreeing on practically any issue."

By the late 1980s, Robinson had left the Air Force, picked up a business degree and moved to North Carolina to teach for Winston-Salem State University. That was when he launched his first unsuccessful political campaign, by taking on the hand-picked Republican candidate for state school superintendent. Back in 1992, no other statewide candidate supported charter schools, the issue he adopted. "I was Don Quixote," he said. He lost two separate bids for the post, but in 1994, when Republicans took over the Legislature, they adopted a version of his charter school proposal, which remains the law of the land. He used that notoriety years later to get elected twice to the Winston-Salem City Council. When he lost reelection, having angered many in the city's establishment, he decided to run in the 2004 Republican primary for the 5th Congressional seat, a more conservative part of the state than Raleigh. He campaigned against illegal immigration, criticized his opponents for funding black-only colleges, and suggested that families purchase firearms along with duct tape as a homeland security measure.

It was in the 2004 race when Robinson first realized the power of a well-made political ad. "The bottom line is I had some ideas about what Vernon should say," says Pendley, who created Robinson's first ads. "But they were not going to be captured in a blow-dried, 30-second spot with his wife and kids." The campaign could not afford to pay for a professionally produced spot, so they hired two art students from a nearby school, and did all the work themselves. Pendley wrote the ad, staged his own children in one shot and provided the voice-over. The final product, which became known as the "Twilight Zone ad," was cut for less than $3,000, but can be counted as one of the most jarring political spots of the early 21st century. It features a quick montage of photographs, depicting in rapid succession Osama bin Laden, the beheading of military contractor Nicholas Berg in Iraq, two men kissing, protesters with a sign that reads "God is a Dike," a flag burning, an unborn fetus, a mug shot of Rev. Jesse Jackson, and an equally unflattering photo of Rev. Al Sharpton. The script is a flaming hot summary of conservative gripes.

"If you're a conservative Republican, watching the news these days can make you feel as though you are in 'The Twilight Zone.' Americans are under attack from Islamic extremists in every corner of the world. Homosexuals are mocking holy matrimony and the lesbians and feminists are attacking everything sacred. Liberal judges have completely rewritten the Constitution. You can burn the American flag and kill a million babies a year but you can't post the Ten Commandments or say 'God' in public. Seven out of every 10 children are born out of wedlock and [Rev. Jesse] Jackson and [Al] Sharpton claim the answer is racial quotas. And the aliens are here but they didn't come in a spaceship, they came across our unguarded Mexican border by the millions."

In the end, Robinson narrowly lost that election, as he had many others before, but he was not discouraged. He had raised about $3 million from thousands of donors, by appealing to conservative e-mail lists with an anti-gay marriage, anti-illegal immigration message. By now a professional candidate, he decided to take on Miller in the next election, even though he does not live in the 13th district.

Meanwhile, the Twilight Zone ad remained on Robinson's site, which led his opponent Miller to begin circulating it among liberal bloggers, who were largely outraged by the content. "We were going to take the ad down," Robinson told me, as our drive entered its second hour. "But [Miller] decided that he was going to raise money on it. He sent it out to all the left-wing blogs. They were horrified." So Robinson, hoping to rally his own base, decided to send it out again himself -- and this summer, two years after the ad was created, the 60-second spot caught fire among conservatives online. By June, Rush Limbaugh began playing it and replaying it on his radio show. "That is just a great, great ad," Limbaugh gushed to his roughly 10 million listeners.

Robinson is still stunned by what happened next. "We raised $192,000 in 15 days online, right before the second quarter ended," Robinson said. "The day I was on the [Rush Limbaugh] program $42,000 came in, in 24 hours." Robinson had found a way to tap the id of the national conservative movement. He had become an unlikely acolyte of Howard Dean, by establishing himself as the enemy of much of what the Democratic Party holds dear.

Since then, Robinson and his partner Pendley have cut several other inflammatory ads, hoping to stir the same pot for fundraising success. One ad mirrors Jesse Helms' famous "Hands" advertisement, which suggested that affirmative action was denying jobs to white workers in North Carolina. In Robertson's version, however, a black woman is shown mourning the loss of a job to an "illegal alien." "These illegal aliens pay no taxes but then take our jobs and our government handouts then spit in our face and burn our flag," the ad reads, while flashing pictures of Hispanic workers, a ploy that appears to border on bigotry. More recently, the campaign cut an ad, which only ran briefly, that accused Miller of funding studies on masturbation and sexual arousal studies for college students. Robinson evidently thinks that this message about arousal research can be a winning issue at the polls. "The Robinson campaign does not follow any mold that has ever been written on the way politics works," boasts Pendley.

None of this fanfare would have been possible without the Internet. But Robinson is almost certain to fail in the only metric that matters in politics -- winning. This dilemma is well known to those who have trod this path before by exploiting the new powers of the Internet. "You can be an off-the-beat challenger in a not-on-the-beat race and raise the money to put your message out there," says Joe Trippi, who managed Dean's 2004 presidential campaign. "But you still have to have a message that works in the district."

After more than two hours of driving, we finally arrived at Meredith College, where candidates for state and local races milled about with students in a dining hall. Robinson made his round, settling for several minutes on one table with five black students, all of them women. They were initially intrigued by his belief that school security guards should bring guns to work to protect students, since all of the girls had tales of out-of-control violence in their high schools. But when Robinson began to speak about the threat of illegal immigration, his call to ban Spanish as a government-sanctioned language and his opposition to gay marriage, he began to lose the table.

"I think they should learn English and we should learn some Spanish," said one student about Hispanic immigrants, after Robinson had moved on to another table. "It's not like they are coming over here and not doing anything," said another student. I asked if they would be voting for Robinson come Nov. 7, and all five girls shook their heads: No.

By Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

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2006 Elections Howard Dean