The Republican Party has had remarkable success winning governorships, state legislatures, House and Senate seats. Yet they have been shut out of the White House for eight years and run a high risk of losing it again. Both of these outcomes can be traced to the same source: Republican base voters.
Older white voters turn out, especially when they are angry or feeling threatened by economic or social conditions. Their anger is as genuine as their motivation to do something about it, and Republicans have skillfully parlayed it into an impressive run of down ballot victories. Remember when Democrats had overwhelming House majorities and a filibuster-proof Senate? That was six years ago, and in the interim Republicans have assembled their largest House majority in generations to go along with complete or partial control of a significant majority of states.
At the same time, their inability to expand their appeal beyond these voters exacts great costs when the rest of the country turns out, which happens to coincide with national elections. John McCain and Mitt Romney couldn’t risk alienating their base and were therefore unable to find a way to appeal to the voters of color, young voters and single women who twice elected Barack Obama. This year, Donald Trump hardly seems to be trying.
Hence the fundamental paradox of the modern Republican Party. They cannot win down ballot elections without their core voters but they cannot win national elections with them.
There is no simple solution to this problem, but the issue is so central to the emerging tragedy of Donald Trump that the sooner they make the excruciating choice to address it the sooner they will begin the process of recovery. Therefore:
The second of the five steps is for Republicans to relinquish their down ballot advantages for the chance to compete nationwide.
Republican elites are aware of the problem. They addressed it in their analysis of the Romney debacle, optimistically called the Growth and Opportunity Project by the RNC (and the 2012 autopsy report by everyone else). Let me quote a brief but salient section of that report:
The Republican Party must focus its efforts to earn new supporters and voters in the following demographic communities: Hispanic, Asian and Pacific Islanders, African Americans, Indian Americans, Native Americans, women, and youth. This priority needs to be a continual effort that affects every facet of our Party’s activities, including our messaging, strategy, outreach, and budget. Unless the RNC gets serious about tackling this problem, we will lose future elections (emphasis mine).
Read that last sentence again, the one about losing future elections. You see, in 2013 party leaders already knew what was coming if they didn’t kick their dependency on white voters. So what happened? For one thing, the 2014 off-year contest, where those same white voters handed Republicans victory after overwhelming victory. This followed the colossal failure that was the Marco Rubio-led attempt at immigration reform, which stalled in the House when a group of nativist representatives prevented it from coming to a vote. The base wasn’t going to let the party budge on immigration, but they were willing (at least back then) to reward the party at the ballot box, so why make hard choices?
Republicans have been able to amplify the support of these turbocharged voters with some well-timed gerrymandering. By sweeping statewide races in 2010, Republicans were able to control the redistricting process in large states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin, drawing lines to protect state legislative gains and maximize the number of Republican House districts. This has unintentionally forced incumbent Republicans to the right, as the threat of facing reactionary primary opponents became greater than the threat of losing to a Democrat. As they move right, they run out of room to compromise. So by pressing their electoral advantage, Republicans have made it impossible to function as a legislative party, which by definition requires compromise. They are musclebound—in power but hardly powerful—and dependent on an angry base, low off-year turnout, and electoral gimmickry.
This is the profile of a party trying not to lose its grip on power, not a party on the verge of claiming a mandate to govern. The voters who produced these down ballot victories represent a shrinking share of the electorate, and they are preventing Republicans from winning high turnout presidential elections. In other words, they are preventing Republicans from having the chance to be a competitive national party. The only way to change this—the only way to implement the recommendations of the autopsy report—is to face up to them.
This means putting down ballot advantages at risk in exchange for no immediate gain. No party, no elected official wants to do this. But it is the only way I can see to untie the knot that secures the Republican’s larger dilemma, and it is not unreasonable to expect this choice to be taken from them if voters trash Republicans down ballot should Trump self-destruct. So why not get out ahead of the curve? The advantages of doing this are not immediate but they are enormous. Taking steps toward being a competitive national party means taking steps toward being a governing party again one day. It means stepping away from the forces that created Donald Trump. And it would free Republicans to address the anger at the heart of Trump’s candidacy by toning down the rhetoric that keeps their voters believing the country is five minutes away from armageddon.
Toning down the rhetoric. That is excruciating step number three.