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Republican In Name Only — or RINO, for short — is a disparaging term that refers to a Republican candidate whose political views are seen as insufficiently conforming to the party line.

The term reflects a broader ideological struggle within the party, particularly among those who identify with more conservative or right-wing factions.

Origin of “RINO”

The phrase became first popularized during the Theodore Roosevelt presidency, as he was often labeled a “Republican in name only” by both critics and proponents, as his trust-busting policies were at odds with long-standing Republican Party ideologies.

It’s not a surprise Roosevelt would later start the Progressive Party and run for president under its banner in 1912.

The term became more popular in the 1990s and has been employed to target those seen as compromising too easily with Democrats or supporting policies that are at odds with conservative orthodoxy.

Issues like taxation, gun control, abortion, and immigration have often been flashpoints in determining who might be labeled a RINO.

In 1992, the RINO acronym had shown up in print, with an article in the New Hampshire Union Leader, written by John Distaso, being cited as the first instance of the term in print:

“The Republicans were moving out and the Democrats and ‘RINOS’ (Republicans In Name Only) were moving in.”

The use of the term arose as polarization increased in the political parties.

The term as a reaction to Bill Clinton

Prior to the 1992 election of Bill Clinton as president, the Democratic and Republican parties had been in a long process of realignment where conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans were quite common.

With the election of Clinton, Republican ideological unity became increasingly fixed as the party abandoned the big tent.

This was exemplified by Grover Norquist’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge, which called upon signatories to reject and oppose all measures to increase tax rates.

By 2012, nearly every Republican presidential candidate was a signatory to this pledge.

Those who did not sign on were considered “RINO Republicans.”

The increasing ideological unity of the Republican Party made holdovers from the previous political alignment look like outliers.

Whereas historically liberal Republicans comprised a wing of the Republican Party, they had (by 1992, and especially by 2020) become incompatible with the Republican Party itself.

Therefore, in an age of party unity, the term  was often used as a political weapon against those seen as disloyal.

It could be used as a threat: vote how your party wants or be branded a RINO.

It could also be used as an effective tool in a primary campaign: the incumbent is a RINO, vote for the challenger.

Indeed, in the 2010 Congressional Elections, the Tea Party effectively used the term as a way to “primary” Republican Incumbents whose policies were not conservative enough.


Rockerfeller roots

The term is also related to the historical term “Rockefeller Republican” which referred to (traditionally) Northeast Republicans who championed business friendly practices while remaining relatively socially liberal.

Named after Nelson Rockefeller who served as the Governor of New York before running unsuccessfully for the Republican Presidential nomination in 1960, 1964, and 1968.

This term has largely died out as the Rockefeller family’s political successes have dwindled.

The term is considered so disparaging that former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens (R) suggested that Republican primary voters go “RINO hunting” in a controversial political advertisement for his U.S. Senate bid in 2022.

And right-wing pundit Ann Coulter has dismissed former President Donald Trump as a viable Republican leader, describing him as a “jackass RINO” and insisting that “he’s so done.”

Use of “RINO” in a sentence

  • Many conservative activists have labeled Senator Smith a RINO, or Republican In Name Only, due to his support for environmental regulations which deviate from typical party lines.
  • Some critics argue that the influence of RINOs is diluting the conservative principles of the Republican party, leading to more moderate or even liberal policies.
  • RINOs are often accused of not fully supporting traditional Republican values, instead choosing to adopt more centrist or bipartisan stances on key issues.