It's Still About the Base
Republican candidates win elections by getting more votes from Republican voters.
No red wave. That’s the headline everywhere this week.
Some people are disappointed; some are gloating; some are coping. I’m closest to the first group, but I’ve grown more optimistic over the course of these last few days.
With the notable exception of Senator J.D. Vance, everyone I liked who was locked in a tough race lost on Tuesday. Most of them lost big. But none of the losses is very difficult to explain, and none is much more difficult to resolve. There were plenty of surprises on Tuesday. But there aren’t really any mysteries.
First, some myths.
The red wave didn’t fail because the GOP leaned too hard into the MAGA movement. For one thing, most of the hand-waving about ultra-mega-MAGA extremists this cycle hasn’t actually been about the populist-nationalist conservatism signified by the slogan. It’s been about “election deniers,” which is to say Republican candidates who don’t get super excited about the “shadow campaign” to “fortify” the last election against a Trump victory.
One of the most prominent has been Kari Lake, the charismatic ex-TV host poised to defeat Katie Hobbs (who as secretary of state oversaw the controversial 2020 election) in the Arizona gubernatorial contest. Setting aside the fact that the vote-counting process has proven many of Lake’s complaints about incompetence correct, plenty of other Trump loyalists have won or look poised to win their midterm contests too. If asking questions about 2020 is really such a killer, then all of these results will have to be explained.
Even Doug Mastriano, the other ultra-mega-MAGA boogeyman of regime media and Resistance Twitter, didn’t lose because he was too radical. He lost because he refused to run a campaign. He won the primary and then vanished into thin air, handing a winnable race to a far-left holdover from the unpopular incumbent government by a margin of 14 points. He dragged Dr. Mehmet Oz down with him, though the latter might have lost regardless by virtue of being a liberal.
Another myth: the red wave didn’t fail because of Dobbs. Even with the stain of Roe wiped away, none but the most fanatical adherents of the death cult went to the polls on Tuesday with preserving abortion at the top of their minds; opinion data have shown this time and time again. Plenty of pro-life incumbents were resoundingly reelected, and plenty of pro-abortion challengers were trounced.
The Republican Party lost this week for the same reason it always loses: it’s soft. Up against the party of infanticide and child mutilation and carnage in Ukraine, the best attack it could muster was “...Inflation!” It tacked to the center in all but a handful of general election campaigns in the desperate hope that Janice, 53, who voted third party in 2020 and for Gretchen Whitmer in 2018 and for Romney/Ryan in 2012 might just cast a ballot for John Gibbs.
For all its posturing, the Republican party refuses to acknowledge that the culture war is a war, and needs to be fought like one. You can win a war by convincing enough of the enemy soldiers to come over to your side. It’s possible, in theory. But how many wars in all of human history have actually been won that way?
Republicans have to stop prioritizing peeling away blue voters, or even purple ones. When it happens naturally that’s one thing, as when Richard Nixon’s revival of traditional American conservatism delivered millions of blue-collar voters to a GOP nearly buried by radical liberal Barry Goldwater just four years before. When this bipartisan appeal is forced by a consultant class that couldn’t find a viable candidate if he was perched on top of a border wall with a halo on his head, it flops. All those efforts should have ended when Donald Trump’s first victory proved the conclusions of the 2012 moratorium completely and utterly bunk.
Mitt Romney didn’t lose because he wasn’t willing enough to let other countries eat America’s lunch. Quite the opposite. Romney’s America Last philosophy combined with his social liberalism made the 2012 nominee just un-exciting. Nobody shows up to the polls for a guy like that. You might gain an extra 5 percent or so of undecided and independent voters by nominating a squishy hack like Romney or Dr. Oz. But if you drop 20 percent of your most reliable supporters in the process, you’re going to lose on election day every time.
Elections, especially swing-state elections, are about turnout. A Republican Party that wants to win needs to refocus on this fact, which secured Trump the White House in 2016 and handed Democrats the Senate in the 2020 runoffs.
Sure, Dr. Oz could have beat John Fetterman if a few hundred thousand Democrats had jumped ship to vote for him. Blake Masters (whose race is yet to be called) would have had a much easier ride if suburban women liked him better. But none of these things are worth talking about. Either man could have won by getting more Republicans to vote for him.
This should go without saying, but apparently it doesn’t. So I’ll say it twice: Republican candidates win elections by getting more votes from Republican voters. General election messaging, almost as much as primary messaging, should be aimed at the people who are actually going to get out and vote for the candidate. This election and plenty of others prove that their votes are not guaranteed; but they are still the most likely by far.
All this means, also, that Republicans should think about how to get the votes of Republican voters beyond just getting them excited by better candidates than Mastriano or Don Bolduc. There is no major election in living memory that Democrats would have won without massive, efficient political machines, especially in heavily populated cities. The influence of these machines has only grown as Covid-era overhauls made ballot harvesting a defining feature of elections all over the country. Democrat activists in battleground states know which retirement communities and neighborhoods to go to, which doors to knock on, which people to pack into vans. As long as these methods remain standard practice, and as long as election law remains unreformed, Republicans might start thinking, for instance, about which churches and neighborhoods deserve attention in the lead up to election day.
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Almost as important as machine politics is old-school retail politics. As TAC contributing editor Sohrab Ahmari observed in the New York Times this week, the GOP’s new populist messaging was undone on the campaign trail by a large-scale return to pre-Trump form: “If you’re a member of the downwardly mobile middle class, someone with a college degree but without a secure job, even as student-loan payments bear down on you, all this rhetoric telegraphs: You aren’t getting any help.” Ahmari points to Oz, who pitched himself as a “small-government Republican” and (somehow, miraculously) lost a state whose rural and blue-collar areas brought Trump to victory in 2016. Plenty of other candidates this cycle, for all the fretting about too much MAGA, fell back on warmed-over libertarianism.
Democrats, meanwhile, have actually offered something to their base. In the months before the election, President Biden finally made moves towards fulfilling the campaign promise of transferring student debt away from borrowers. Somebody in his inner circle understood who his most important voters were: white millennials with college degrees. It was a blatant ploy, and the merits of the policy are irrelevant. What matters is that voters under 30 broke blue by huge margins in every important race, and they showed up.
Two can play at that game, and the GOP’s only options are play or lose.