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A Republican Journey

A longtime GOP member of Congress bids his party goodbye.
January 13, 2021
A Republican Journey
(GettyImages / Shutterstock)

It was 1958. I had turned 21, just a year past graduation from the University of Oklahoma, member of the student senate, one of the “Ruf-Neks” who lead the football team onto the field at the start of every Sooners game. In other words: a typical Oklahoma college student. Atypically, however, I was also a member of the Young Republicans, almost certainly the smallest club on campus.

After a brief stint as a reporter on a small-city daily, I returned home to Oklahoma City and registered to vote. I wanted to register as a Republican; registration officials tried to talk me out of it. They said my vote wouldn’t count; there had never been a Republican elected governor in Oklahoma (that year the Republican candidate for governor received less than 20 percent of the vote). The congressman from Oklahoma City was a Democrat, both senators were Democrats, Democrats had a roughly nine-to-one majority in the state legislature and held every state office. No, I said: I’m a Republican.

I was a reporter, then an editor, for the Oklahoma City Times, but away from the office, I worked to build the Republican party. I became chairman of the local Young Republican Club and built it to several times its original size. Then I became state chairman. Then national vice chairman. I was elected to the national board of the American Conservative Union. I worked to elect Barry Goldwater. We lost but began the national movement that led to Ronald Reagan’s victory 16 years later.

I was so visible (I was featured in an article in Look, a major national publication) that my managing editor told me (properly, I admit) that I couldn’t be both a newspaperman and a partisan activist quoted on the front page. I was offered a promotion to editorial writer, but I would have to choose: the GOP or my job. I gave up a job I loved. I became national chairman of the American Conservative Union and one of three founding trustees of the Heritage Foundation.

In 1974 I ran for Congress against a Democrat who had held the seat for 24 years. The district was three-to-one Democratic. I had no money, spending just over $30,000, but knocked on hundreds of doors, spoke at dozens of coffees, got more than 48 percent of the vote. Two years later, I flipped the seat, becoming the first Republican elected to Congress from Oklahoma City in half a century. Except for one two-year exception, it has remained a Republican seat for 46 years. I joined the Reagan campaign in 1980, leading a group of policy advisory task forces co-chaired by Republican senators and House members. I moved up in the House Republican leadership and became chairman of the Republican Policy Committee. Altogether I served eight terms in the House.

I have been a Republican for 62 years. I have been a Goldwater conservative, a Reagan conservative, and a W conservative.

And I have now left the Republican party. A party that has been at the center of my entire adult life. A party that defined me to others and to myself. It has become the opposite of what it was. It has become a cult idolizing a ruler, a trasher of institutions of democracy driven by falsehoods and hatreds.

Consider the big issue of the last two months: The “steal” of the 2020 election. Who are the supposed forces of evil who have perpetrated this “steal”? Take Arizona. The governor, a Trump supporter and conservative, certified that Trump lost a fair election in his state. The governor of Georgia, a Trump supporter and conservative, said Trump lost a fair election in his state. The conservative Republican Trump supporters who lead the Michigan legislature said Trump lost a fair election in their state. Dozens of courts—including judges appointed by Trump—said there was no evidence of fraud. The Supreme Court, dominated by conservatives and including three Trump appointees, tossed out Trump’s claim of a stolen election. Unanimously. Bill Barr, the attorney general and Trump loyalist, said there was no evidence of anything that questioned the validity of Trump’s loss.

Despite all that, Trump supporters attacked the United States Capitol. A police officer was killed by the mob; another took his life after the fact. Staffers and members feared for their lives. Journalists were assaulted. And after all that, nearly 150 Republican members of Congress still fed the falsehood that the validity of the election was in question. These were not citizens with no access to truth; they are not ignorant of the facts. They knew everything I’ve spelled out about the validity of Donald Trump’s electoral loss. They knew—but they fed the falsehood; they provided the fuel for an attack on the heart of American government, an attack that killed an officer trying to protect them. An attack by Americans against America. Supported and cheered on by Republicans. My Republicans. There were Republicans who refused to play along with the charade—men like Governor Ducey in Arizona, Governor Kemp and election officials in Georgia—but for the most part even those Republican members of Congress who didn’t join the attempt to overthrow the election remained unforgivably silent out of party loyalty and fear, making them complicit nonetheless in this bloody attack on their own country.

I’ve left the Republican party. I will not be going back.

Mickey Edwards

Mickey Edwards represented Oklahoma’s 5th Congressional District in Congress for 16 years. He was a member of the Republican leadership and chairman of the party’s policy committee in the House. He now teaches at Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs.