Three days after he was scheduled to speak at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville—a speech that never occurred as the event descended into violence that left one woman dead and 19 others injured—Holocaust denier and far-right radical Augustus Sol Invictus announced that he is running for the U.S. Senate as a Republican.
Wearing a suit and tie and standing outside Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL)’s Washington office, Invictus filmed a shaky live-streamed announcement video in which he blamed liberal counterprotesters for the violence in the Virginia college town.
“We now enter a new age of American history, and the question to be answered is this: Will we restore the republic our forefathers created, or will we allow it to be annihilated by those who hate America, its history, and all it stands for?” asked the Florida man, whose given name is Austin Gillespie. “A reckoning has come. God wills it.”
Though he has not yet filed the Federal Election Commission paperwork necessary to raise money, Invictus said he will be running as a member of the Republican Party, challenging Nelson in a Senate race that is expected to draw notable establishment Republicans, potentially including Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R).
The Republican Party of Florida, contacted repeatedly by ThinkProgress, declined to comment on Invictus’ candidacy or whether the party will make any efforts to keep him off the primary ballot.
As national attention on white nationalist groups mounts—emboldened by the Trump presidency, far-right factions have shown more public and frequent displays of hate speech and violence—it’s likely that Invictus will not be the only neo-Nazi, Holocaust denier, or radical far-right figure to seek political office. Shiva Ayyadurai, who is running for Congress as a Republican challenging Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), spoke at the Boston Free Speech Rally on Saturday. One Charlottesville participant from Missouri, interviewed by the New York Times during the rally, asked to be identified only as “Ted” because he said he might want to run for office some day.
The prospect of neo-Nazis representing the GOP raises serious constitutional questions for political parties, who will have to decide whether to allow controversial figures to appear on their primary ballots. And with a president in the White House who has not only fanned the flames of white supremacists, but effectively sided with them in the wake of the Charlottesville violence, establishment Republican leaders will have to calculate if allowing extreme figures to appear on their ballots causes more harm than good.
For many Republicans, the potential to alienate a small group of extreme voters within the party while distancing itself from hateful rhetoric, will be worth the effort. Veteran GOP operative Mark Corallo told ThinkProgress that the party should do everything it can to disassociate with candidates like Invictus.
“If there is any legal way to prevent a racist from appearing on the ballot, then they should absolutely use all legal means to prevent it,” he said. “And if the party rules need to be changed to prevent racists, neo-Nazis, and other vile human beings of that ilk from appearing on the ballot then they should be changed immediately.”
Corallo, who until recently served as a spokesperson for Trump’s personal attorney Marc Kasowitz and had been handling the White House’s defense in the Russia investigation, said that disassociating should be a priority for the GOP.
“Simply put, they should formally disassociate the party from the haters,” he said. “Furthermore they should make it clear that anyone who identifies himself as a Republican and hold those vile racist views is not a Republican and will not only be deprived of support but will be condemned in the harshest terms by the Republican Party.”
‘The David Duke Problem’
Case law on whether a party can exclude a candidate from a primary ballot is anything but clear. In fact, former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard and founder of the Louisiana-based Knights of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke has both been blocked and permitted to run for political office.
In the mid-1990s, appellate courts sided with the Georgia Republican Party, which blocked Duke from appearing on the state ballot as a Republican candidate for president in the 1992 election. But 24 years later, just one day after then-candidate Trump secured the Republican nomination, Duke announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate in Louisiana. Despite his hate speech and felony record, the state party made no effort to formally disassociate from him. In fact, they invited him to participate in a primary debate at a historically black college and prevented students from attending because of fears that protests could grow violent.
Duke has had political ambitions for decades, running in at least 11 state and local races over more than four decades as a Democrat, Republican, and third-party candidate. His success, however, came after he switched to the Republican Party. In 1989, he won his first election and served as a Republican Louisiana state senator from 1989 to 1992.
In 1991, Duke decided to seek higher office and run for Louisiana governor. But with his search for more power came more scrutiny. Then-President George Bush announced his opposition to even letting Duke campaign, saying: “When someone has so recently endorsed Nazism, it is inconceivable that someone can reasonably aspire to a leadership role in a free society.”
Despite the president’s denouncement, the party did not block him from the ballot. In fact, he made it into the run-off and squared off against three-term Democratic governor Edwin Edwards. Though Duke lost with just 39 percent to Edwards’ 61 percent, he won 55 percent of the white vote.
The losses did not deter him, and as Duke sought higher office, the Republican Party tried and had mixed success in shutting him down.
That mixed success is a result of complicated laws regarding the rights of a political party. In a 2000 article in the Georgetown Law Journal titled “Candidates v. Parties: The Constitutional Constraints on Primary Ballot Access,” election law professor Nate Persily looked at the legal precedent of political parties denying ballot access to individuals, including court rulings upholding the Georgia Republican Party’s decision to ban Duke from the ballot in 1992.
Two panels of the Eleventh Circuit considered Georgia’s decision and agreed that it was constitutional for the Republican Party to exclude Duke from the ballot because he didn’t meet the ideological litmus test.
“Duke has no right to associate with the Republican Party if the Republican Party has identified Duke as ideologically outside the party,” the court held, adding that the state had a “compelling interest” in protecting parties’ right to exclude.
Keeping Duke off the ballot did not infringe on voters’ right to have their favored candidate on the ballot because Duke could still run as an independent, third-party candidate, or write-in candidate, Persily noted. But he added that case law is anything but definitive, and that parties run into thorny ground when they try to play a “paternalistic role deciding whether a candidate is sufficiently authentic” to deserve an opportunity to try to appeal to the party membership. Allowing the candidates to appear on the ballot would permit the party membership to filter out in the primary who is not “on message” with the party without potentially violating the candidate’s constitutional rights.
Though he lost in court in the mid-1990s, Duke couldn’t be kept away from the Republican Party for long. In 1996, he tried again, this time running for U.S. Senate in Louisiana in a race in which he placed fourth out of nine candidates. Then he 1999, he ran for U.S. House, placing third and narrowly missing the run-off with 19 percent of the vote.
His most recent attempt came last year, when he tried to ride Trump’s momentum into the U.S. Senate. “I am overjoyed to see Donald Trump and most Americans embrace most of the issues I’ve championed for years,” Duke said in his announcement video. “The New York Times admitted that my platform became the GOP’s mainstream and propelled Republicans to the control of Congress.”
Louisiana Republican leaders and the other GOP candidates immediately issued statements denouncing him. Some even thought of bringing legal action. “We looked at litigating to get him thrown off the ballot as a Republican,” Jason Doré, executive director of the Louisiana GOP, told The Atlantic. But, according to The Atlantic’s report, the state party has no bylaws controlling who can run as a Republican. In August 2016, the state party met to consider changing the bylaws to ban former felons from running for office as Republicans (Duke pleaded guilty in 2002 to a tax charge and fraud). But even that move would not have kicked in until after the November election, and in the end, the party decided not to adopt the change.
Explaining his inaction, Doré said that excluding Duke would require wide-reaching statutory changes that would throw “the entire election into chaos.” He made no mention of the chaos that could be caused by having a self-identified white supremacist on the party’s ballot or appearing at the party’s debates.
Duke’s name ultimately appeared on the ballot, and he received more than 58,000 votes.
Political parties in each state have different bylaws governing who they can block from running under the party’s umbrella, so while Louisiana has recently allowed Duke’s candidacy, other states could make different determinations and formally distance themselves from white supremacists and their supporters. The question will be: Is the Republican Party ready to take that stance?
Invictus and the Republican Party
If the Republican establishment’s reaction to Trump’s “both sides” comments is any indication, the party is not ready to take a bold stance against white supremacy. Only a handful of Republican members of Congress explicitly criticized Trump, and neither House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) nor Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) mentioned the president in their statements. Rep. Tom Garrett (R-VA), who represents Charlottesville in the House, has not yet commented on Trump’s remarks.
So it’s no surprise that Invictus felt comfortable walking into the U.S. Senate offices just two days after the Charlottesville rally to declare his candidacy as a Republican—previously, he did not associate with the party.
Last year, in his first foray into electoral politics, he challenged Republican Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), running as a Libertarian candidate.
His appearance on the ballot at the time was highly controversial. News reports highlighted the absurdity of his candidacy: He earned headlines for claiming that he had walked from central Florida to the Mojave Desert, and upon his return, he said he killed a goat and drank its blood as part of a pagan ritual.
But Adrian Wyllie, then-chair of Florida’s Libertarian Party, was unable to persuade his party’s executive committee to publicly disavow Invictus, according to Politico. So Wyllie resigned from his position, saying that: “I don’t want anyone to think this guy represents Libertarians. He doesn’t.”
Invictus earned 1,063 votes—26.5 percent of the Libertarian vote—in the August 2016 primary.
One year later, as the country continued to process the tragedy in Charlottesville, Invictus announced that he will be running on the Republican ballot. Though he didn’t explain his decision to switch parties, it’s not hard to understand why a white supremacist would think the Republican Party would embrace him in 2017.
A recent poll found that 64 percent of Republicans agree with President Trump that “both sides” share the fault for the violence in Charlottesville. And as of June, 72 percent of Republicans approve of the president who this week refused to denounce the neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville holding torches and chanting: “Jews will not replace us.”
While the party has not commented on his candidacy, Invictus said Friday that Facebook has removed his Senate campaign page from the website. Facebook did not immediately respond to a request to comment on its decision.
The GOP could have a hard time disavowing someone like Invictus, when the party is currently led by Trump and is filled with lawmakers who also frequently make appeals to the party’s racist base, without necessarily describing themselves as white nationalists. Rep. Steve King (R-IA) sent a tweet in March—“We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”—that was so popular with white supremacists, they dubbed him “King Steve.”
“Steve King is basically an open white nationalist at this point,” Andrew Anglin, the founder of the neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer, wrote at the time.
Iowa GOP chairman Jeff Kaufmann responded by claiming that he does not agree with King’s statement. But Kaufmann did not go as far as to say that he would try to prevent King from representing Iowa Republicans in the future. Instead, Kauffman reserved his harshest words for Duke, who praised King’s tweet. “His words and sentiments are absolute garbage,” the GOP chair said about Duke. “He is not welcome in our wonderful state.”
The sentiment is unlikely to affect Duke, who may be—and under current Louisiana GOP law, is allowed to be—plotting his next campaign for the Republican ticket in a state 900 miles from Iowa.