First Virginia, and now Alabama. From the looks of things, the Republican party is going through a rough patch. Sure, the GOP controls the White House, both chambers of Congress, and even the supreme court – thank you Mitch McConnell, but it doesn’t look or feel like fun.
Instead, traditional Republican constituencies like high-end suburbanites and college grads appear to be abandoning the party of their parents, or at least taking a powder. With the 2018 midterm elections looming just over the horizon, a little soul searching and reflection may do all of us a bit of good.
First, let’s be honest about things. The ascendance of the white working class within the Republican party, coupled with Donald Trump’s persistently sagging poll numbers, have brought the GOP’s simmering fault lines to the fore.
Since Richard Nixon, the Republican party has tried to outgrow its reputation as a country club restricted to Northeastern Wasps and Cheeveresque suburbanites, and the reality is that it has succeeded beyond Pat Buchanan’s wildest dreams. Nowadays, the GOP is home to blue-collar Americans, Southerners and regular church-goers. It is has also kept its doors open to America’s rich – think the Koch Brothers and the Mercer Family.
Talk about coalition-building. Truly.
On paper, all this should spell good news for the Republicans, but it hasn’t been. The president tweets way too much, and has a way of sucking the air out of the room. Yes, Trump calls his shtick “modern presidential”, but we all know that it reminds us of our surly 10-year old who stays glued to his X-Box or PlayStation, and that’s not what we want in our president. Or as Senator Bob Corker put it, the White House is now “an adult day care center”.
But it’s not just about Trump. Rather, it’s what passes these days as standard Republican tropes.
In the hopes of forging a permanent alliance with the white working class and fending off primary challenges from the Right, the GOP offers up a continuous fare of scare. Campaigning in Virginia, Ed Gillespie, the Republican nominee and a member of the party’s establishment if there ever was one, mouthed a steady stream of homages to Confederate monuments, and warnings about the horrors of gang violence.
Ultimately, Gillespie convincingly lost in what was expected to be a cliffhanger. While rural and older Trump voters responded to Gillespie’s call, suburbanites, wealthier voters, whites with college degrees and non-evangelicals all flocked to Ralph Northam, Gillespie’s Democratic opponent.
The story repeated itself earlier this week in Alabama. There, Steve Bannon, Trump’s senior political advisor and former White House aide, backed Roy Moore as his vehicle for battering Senator McConnell and the GOP’s powers that be. Bannon guided Moore to a primary victory and then to special election calamity.
That Moore was soft on slavery, hostile to modernity, and repeatedly accused of being a pedophile appeared almost irrelevant to Trump, Bannon and Alabama’s Republican base, with tribalism nearly triumphing over reality – the operative words being “almost” and “nearly”.
In the end, Moore lost nearly one out of 10 Republicans and a majority of independents to Democrat Doug Jones. Meanwhile, moms walked away from Moore, and a Republican who can’t win the mom vote has a problem.As for Alabama’s suburbs, Moore won those by only four points, after Mitt Romney had scored a 33-point victory in those same precincts back in 2012. Talk about underperforming, and yes normalcy makes a difference.
So where does that leave what was once the Party of Lincoln, but which now looks awfully like a white workers party? At the crossroads.
To the extent that the GOP continues to double down on its unvarnished working- class message, expect defections to continue, and the party’s popularity to decline with upscale America. And we’ve seen this movie before.
As a response to the 2008 stock market crash and the Iraq War, Americans earning more than $200,000 actually favored Democrat Barack Obama by a six-point margin over Senator John McCain. Meanwhile, in 2016, Hillary Clinton narrowly bested Donald Trump among the $200,000-and-up set, even as she lost the election, but won the popular vote.
For the Republicans to hold on to what they have, the party will need to cool some of its more inflammatory rhetoric in the coming months. There are definitely arguments to be made for the GOP’s positions on an array of issues. For the moment, however, instead of ginning-up the GOP’s base, the cacophony has energized the Democrats, and given marginal Republicans further reason to leave what was once their political home.
If this continues, come January 2019, Representative Nancy Peolsi may once again be seen wielding the Speaker’s gavel, and Senator Chuck Schumer may be known as the majority leader. Is this a scenario that Republicans want to see? I doubt it.
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