An unsettling thing happened to the Republican Party on the way to its 2013 reboot. In the wake of Mitt Romney’s presidential defeat, the RNC commissioned a self-study to figure out what it would need to do to be competitive after twice losing by substantial margins to the Obama coalition. The results were expressed in what Republicans officially called the Growth and Opportunity Project (and what everyone else in Washington called the “autopsy report”). It was a sober document that stated the party’s electoral challenge clearly:
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 attracts 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; the data demonstrates this . . . The minority groups that President Obama carried with 80 percent of the vote in 2012 are on track to become a majority of the nation’s population by 2050 . . . In addition, the Republican Party lost youth and women voters in 2012. It is imperative that we reverse this troubling trend, as women represent the majority of voters and youth are future voters for decades to come.
As a roadmap to being a competitive 21st century party, the autopsy report was on target. Yet, a mere six years later, instead of following their own advice, Republicans have embraced a path that is driving away the very groups they need to attract to remain viable once the Trump Reaction is over. Surely this will be catastrophic to Republicans in the longterm. By their own admission, the price of their current orgy of xenophobia and racism will be to lose elections in perpetuity.
That is to say, if we continue to hold real elections.
The recommendations of the autopsy report were cast aside because it turned out to be impossible to implement them without dividing the party. Moderate positions on social issues might have appealed to some women and younger voters, and embracing bipartisan immigration reform could have attracted some Latino voters, but it would have angered and demobilized the party’s white socially conservative base, ultimately dividing the party and jeopardizing its near-term electoral prospects. And it’s been clear since 2009, when Republican leaders refused to work with Obama in an effort to make him a one-term president, that Republicans intended to re-tool without losing the majority status they had enjoyed since Reagan. They just didn’t believe it was possible to remain in power by relying on older white voters until Trump pulled off his Electoral College miracle in 2016. Now the party is owned by Trump, so they have no choice. But the data were clear in 2013 and the data are clear now. Trump’s strategy has put the Republican Party on a path to political oblivion if America is a place where people are permitted to vote.
This is where things become disconcerting.
The moment for following their own advice and adapting to a changing electorate has passed. Staying in power now requires enabling Donald Trump, and all but a few Republicans have demonstrated a willingness to do it. There is no reason to believe they will be any more willing to concede power tomorrow, when winning elections will require disenfranchising a steadily growing share of voters that the autopsy report implored them to attract but who will be forever lost to the party following the Trump experience. From gerrymandering to voter ID laws and more, Republicans have long embraced a string of anti-democratic measures to give themselves advantages they do not naturally have with the electorate, but those efforts have taken on an urgency in the Trump years to the point where Republicans now will not intervene to stop the manipulation of the 2020 election by foreign adversaries that Robert Mueller and intelligence officials have unambiguously said is underway.
When Mitch McConnell refused to permit a vote on bipartisan legislation to protect the 2020 election from foreign interference, his rationale was that it was a partisan effort that would help elect more Democrats. What he is admitting is that fair elections hurt Republicans, so undermining elections is now the stated position of the Republican Party. Republicans have burned the bridges they need to build a viable political coalition yet they refuse to yield power and are embracing antidemocratic measures at an alarming rate to neutralize their opposition. We know where this leads.
There is no easy way for Republicans to return from their rendezvous with authoritarianism and compete on a democratic playing field while their voters retreat into history. So party leaders and officials who should know better — who certainly do know better — choose to prop up their power by undermining democracy itself.
America faces a choice: Republicans can continue to remain in power or we can have a republic. But we cannot have both.