Long ago, I was a registered Republican. I might have been a ride-or-die liberal, but I had the brilliant plan of voting in GOP primaries in order to throw the nomination to the wackiest, most fringe candidate—which, at the time, seemed to be Pat Buchanan. We’ve come a long way, baby!
I never got the chance to do that, since a truly contested Republican primary never happened in my home state. By the time I moved to New York, I registered as a Democrat so I could intervene in the contest between Howard Dean and Johns Kerry and Edwards (the latter the most “john” of all). By 2008, Rush Limbaugh had caught wind of my original plan and advised his supporters to go vote in states where there were open primaries—meaning registered Republicans could vote in Democratic contests, and vice versa—in order to prolong the fracas between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton by voting for HRC. He called it “Operation Chaos.”
Fast forward to 2012. Living in Georgia, I finally had a real shot at messing up a Republican primary for the first time. Beleaguered monocle enthusiast Mitt Romney always seemed to be the likely GOP nominee—until recently, at least, Republicans tended to fall in line behind the establishment candidate (McCain, Dubya, Dole, Daddy Bush), no matter how uninspiring or unsavory the choice might be. However, Mittens still had to endure the humiliation of a parade of rising and falling conservative darlings such as Michele Bachmann Turner Overdrive, Herman “Nein Nein Nein” Cain, and Rick “Google Me” Santorum.
And then there was Newt. Oh, Newt, you magnificent human bobble-head. The disgraced former House Speaker and Reagan Revolution foot-soldier somehow emerged from the mothballs and infomercials to give Romney a serious challenge in the South, winning the critical South Carolina primary in February. Given the dynamics of 2016, when even the narrowest second or third place finish is parsed by pundits for its predictive power, it’s hard to remember that the GOP race in 2012 was surprisingly competitive. World-historical weirdo Santorum actually edged out Romney in Iowa and managed to win a number of states throughout the primary calendar, such as Minnesota, Missouri, and Colorado—bringing his message of moral traditionalism and economic populism to a broad audience. Romney also faltered in the face of Newt’s improbable and basically incomprehensible appeal. (ToM meditated on the gee-whiz, whiz-bang charm of space cadet Gingrich at the time.)
In other words, I was determined to vote for Newt. However smart and savvy the PhD-holding former West Georgia history professor might be, his oozing egotism and appalling personal history would seem to pose no threat to the incumbent president. After all, Obama was smarter and more likable than a man whose first name literally evoked the slimy amphibian his personality resembled and whose last name called to mind a Dr. Seuss villain (!) best known for his greed and cruelty. So Newt it was. Ahead of the Georgia primary, it looked like Gingrich could actually give Romney a run for his oh-so abundant money, and I was happy to help.
But I wasn’t. Walking to the polling place at a church in East Atlanta Village, I felt a heavy burden of history on my shoulders. I had never voted for a Republican in my life. I remember a liberal history professor (redundant, I know) who I TA’d for in New York telling the class that he had spent most of his life in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, where there were corrupt, long-standing Democratic machines, and yet he had always, always voted for the Democrat. But in 2005, he was going to vote for Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was then still sort of a Republican, and he worried that he might be struck by lightning for doing so. I wondered if a freak lightning storm might break out over Brownwood Avenue as I soldiered into the polling place.
I had not considered the visceral realities of casting this ballot. As is almost always the case in the South, at least in my experience, the election volunteers were elderly black women. When I showed up to sign in, they asked me which ballot I wanted. With a lump in my throat the size of a cinderblock, I somehow choked out the word, “Republican.” I wanted nothing more in that moment than to shout, “I’m not a bad person! I’m doing this for a reason! Please don’t hate me!” But I could not. I guess I could have, but it seemed like it would be violating some election law to deliberately and openly vote for someone you didn’t support.
I weakly sauntered into the voting booth, and I pulled the lever for Newt. I thought it would be so simple. It’s just one vote. It’s just a lever. It’s part of a strategy. I kept telling myself these things but my body could not physically stop its resistance. Yet I voted for Newt—and you know what? He won.
It was the last contest Dr. Gingrich would win. This is the same man who tried to overthrow his department chair in a coup as an assistant professor—he’s not exactly Churchill material. He’s probably gone back to selling Swiffer-brand toupees on QVC. But for one fleeting moment, I contributed to the political renaissance of a man who committed his entire political life to taking food out of the hands of hungry children. It was not a proud moment, and I took about a million showers after doing so. It was not enough.
For those who might be thinking or casting a kamikaze ballot for Trump or Cruz or Carson or whoever seems to be the freak of the moment this year, for the sole purpose of throwing the GOP nomination into chaos, consider my story. And also consider that however contemptible my act was, at least Gingrich never got elected.