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Feature 01.20.2023 10 minutes

Nomination, Not Coronation

US-POLITICS-VOTE-REPUBLICANS

The 2022 midterms were a blessing in disguise for the GOP.

On the surface, the 2022 midterms were bleak for the GOP.

For the first time since 1934, the president’s party did not lose a single Senate incumbent during the midterms. The GOP did manage to flip the House but picked up just nine seats—a very modest number for a midterm election with an extremely unpopular president, who was pushing an extremely unpopular agenda with extreme incompetence.

And yet, reports of the GOP’s death are greatly exaggerated. In fact, for several reasons, the unexpectedly strong performance of the Democrats will likely turn out to be a long-term blessing for the GOP that will greatly increase the chances for a GOP triumph in 2024.

First, the Democrats’ strong electoral performance makes it difficult for the party to rid itself of Joe Biden, an extraordinarily weak incumbent with very negative ratings who inspires little enthusiasm. (While 41 percent of voters in exit polls approved of Biden’s performance, just 18 percent strongly approved while 45 percent strongly disapproved.) A staggering two-thirds of voters, including 40 percent of Democrats, don’t want Biden to run in 2024. The Democrats will likely have to work double-time to turn out every marginal voter in 2024 and harvest every ballot, because Biden will not inspire enthusiasm.

Assuming his intent to run does not change, the Dems will almost certainly trot out an 82-year-old Biden as their nominee in 2024. Who will stop him? California Governor Gavin Newsom, his highest-profile potential opponent, has already begged off. There are no obvious rising superstars in the party with the stature to take him on.

Biden’s seemingly successful attempt to make the South Carolina primary the first in the nation will also make it extremely difficult for an opponent to defeat him. African Americans make up 56 percent of South Carolina’s Democratic primary electorate and are famously loyal. Biden took 61 percent of their vote (compared to just 33 percent of white voters) in the highly contested 2016 primary—he would almost certainly do far better as the incumbent. By putting a state of loyalists first, Biden will short-circuit any challengers before they can gain momentum. It’s an obvious ploy that has drawn a fair bit of grumbling among possible Biden opponents.

Second, despite the disappointing number of seats won, the GOP did much better at winning votes than media accounts would indicate. In the House, the party had its fourth-best result in the popular vote since 1948, beating the Democrats by 2.8 percent after having lost the House vote by 3.1 percent in 2020 and by 8.6 percent in 2018, the last “off year” election. Only a few close losses and sub-optimal vote/seat allocation kept the GOP from a larger victory here. Similarly in the Senate, the GOP actually won the popular vote by a narrow 49.1 to 49.0 percent, improving dramatically from their 53.0 percent to 42.2 percent loss in 2016 (when these same seats were last up). They even scored a higher percentage of Senate votes in these seats than they did in the famous Tea Party wave of 2010, despite having to defend six open seats vs. the Democrats’ one. (In 2016 they had two retirements vs. the Dems’ three; in 2010 the Democrats had seven retirements to the GOP’s six.)

Finally, and please parse this statement carefully: the GOP did well by loosening former President Donald Trump’s hold over the party.

I was proud to be appointed by President Trump to serve in his administration. As I have said and written almost since the day the administration ended, President Trump would have won a free and fair election rather than one rigged by the media, Big Tech, and the Democrats. Despite his flaws, Trump is superior to any candidate the GOP establishment will put forth, and I will fully support him if he is our nominee.

All that having been said, the midterms were brutal for Trump. While our defeat had many fathers, candidates who were endorsed by Trump performed substantially worse (approximately 7 percent worse in competitive races) than candidates not endorsed by him. Trump’s unwisely chosen hand-picked candidates like Herschel Walker, Dr. Oz, and Doug Mastriano lost badly in key races where more conventional candidates probably would have won.

Paradoxically, this is good for both Trump and the GOP. The electorate has sent a decisive message that they are not interested in re-litigating the 2020 election. Election integrity is a critical issue, but we should focus on stopping future electoral abuses—not complaining about past ones.

The net effect of 2022 is that Trump actually has to win the nomination with voters rather than having it handed to him by default. That means recovering the energy and agenda and message that he had in 2016.

Earn It

At this point the louder “only Trump” partisans argue that it is impossible for the GOP coalition to win without Trump, because he activates and brings out voters that other candidates do not. At one level, this is obviously true. But it misses two points—first, Trump also negatively activates opposing partisans (and alienates some independents) in ways that other candidates do not. Second, the GOP can put together a winning 2024 coalition that is different than the coalition of 2016. I have argued that while the GOP must embrace a pro-working class agenda, we actually need to win a larger percentage of “elite” voters if we actually want to exercise power rather than simply win elections. Trump’s style tends to alienate many of these voters.

Picturing a winning 2024 coalition brings us to the most prominent Trump alternative, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida. DeSantis’s overwhelming victory in the Florida governor’s race showed that leaning into the culture war can be a huge winner for the GOP.

And there are many things to recommend DeSantis. He has delivered substantive and not just rhetorical victories in Florida. He has run as an aggressive conservative in a (formerly) purple state and won big. His roots in the right-wing House Freedom Caucus inspire trust.

The exit polls from 2022 also paint a rosy picture of DeSantis’s electability. Despite his culture war bonafides, he did better among moderate voters, losing them by just eight points while Trump lost them by 19. He won Latinos by an impressive 58-40, winning decisively not just among Cubans but groups such as Puerto Ricans, which DeSantis won by 13 while Trump lost by 38. He even did three points better than Trump among white voters, but he shined in particular among non-white voters, with Charlie Crist beating him by just seven percent among minorities while Trump lost Florida minority voters by 35 points. He also significantly outperformed Trump among voters with advanced degrees, winning them by 11 points while Trump lost them by eight.

Yet even for DeSantis, not everything is rosy—his gender gap of 11 percent is even bigger than Trump’s six percent and suggests that his pugnacious style may not be as successful at winning over female voters. More critically, DeSantis runs the risk of being co-opted by the establishment. The establishment wants to be rid of Trump and will likely back DeSantis as the horse that can beat him. It would be political malpractice of him not to accept any votes he can get. But he must deal with the establishment by giving them the table scraps that they have given the grassroots for years—DeSantis has leverage over them, and he must act like it. A successful DeSantis candidacy can only work as the fulfillment of the Trump movement in a more strategic and disciplined package—not a repudiation of it. DeSantis will also have to show he can take a punch from the toughest puncher in politics. As with Trump, it is a blessing that DeSantis will have to fight for the nomination, not seek a coronation.

Demographics

Other theoretically possible GOP nominees include Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio. But barring a major DeSantis scandal, it is very hard to envision any of these candidates leapfrogging either him or Trump. This reality is perhaps best summarized by a recent Wall Street Journal poll that had DeSantis beating Trump by 14 while Trump was beating Pence by 35. In a theoretical world in which DeSantis somehow self-destructed, Cruz and Rubio (#2 and #3 in the 2016 GOP primary) would seem to be the most logical folks to take up the mantle, but they would start the process as heavy underdogs to Trump.

Beyond candidates, the Democrats have handed the GOP a potential powerful victory over the last few years by firmly positioning themselves as the “Black interests party”—leaving a real opportunity for the GOP to become the party of everyone else. This was evident in the Democrats’ recent switch to make South Carolina their initial primary state. A recent New York Times headline gave the game away saying that Biden was “Demoting Iowa, and prizing diversity.” But the move to South Carolina isn’t prizing diversity—it’s privileging black voters, something explicitly pointed out by African American politicians such as DNC head Jamie Harrison and New York Mayor Eric Adams.

South Carolina’s Democratic primary electorate is just three percent Hispanic, Asian, Native American, and “other” combined. These groups made up 21 percent of the electorate (and more than a quarter of Democratic voters) in 2020 and are sure to be an even larger percentage of the 2024 electorate. Actually prioritizing diversity would have meant putting a state like Nevada first. Nevada’s Democratic primary electorate is 65 percent white, 11 percent black, 17 percent Hispanic, 3 percent Asian, and 4 percent “other”—an extremely close analogue to the actual electorate. But the Democrats are telling these other groups to go to the back of the bus.

And the Democrats are not just doing this at election time: The Black Lives Matter movement that led to riots and billions of property damage (often to businesses owned by non-black minorities) received unstinting support from the Democratic Party. Their increasing use of terms like BIPOC (Blackness first, almost everyone else demoted to “People of Color”)—privileges black voters. Their dedication to affirmative action that helps African Americans most and hurts other minority groups (such as Asian Americans) is so unpopular with voters that it went down to defeat even in ultra-liberal California.

Perhaps this is why among House candidates the GOP had strong results among non-black minority voters, winning approximately 44 percent of their votes, up from 34 percent in 2020. As long as these voters are treated as second-class members of the Democratic coalition, the GOP has a great opportunity to reach them.

Among upscale white voters, the opportunities are, if anything, even greater. The GOP won white voters without a college degree 66-32, but Democrats won white voters with a college degree 50-47. For “elite” whites with graduate degrees, GOP numbers are even worse.

Yet the discrimination faced by elite whites under the Democratic regime gets worse by the day. Sixty-four percent of Biden’s judicial nominees are non-white, and 67 percent are female. Just two of Biden’s first 41 judicial nominees were white men (a group that comprised one-third of the electorate). Not one of Biden’s 25 cabinet members is a white American of Protestant background, and there are only five non-Jewish white Americans in Biden’s cabinet, all in relatively minor cabinet posts. This despite the fact white men likely contributed, according to donor profiles, the majority of Biden’s campaign funds.

If you were an ambitious young white man in politics, why would you sign up with the Democrats? While white Democrat women (especially single) still have a seat at the table, they are also very much second-class citizens.

Simply put, while white plumbers are voting GOP and white lawyers are not, it is the latter that arguably bear the brunt of the penalty under the Democrats’ anti-white discrimination regime (the growth of which is the subject of my forthcoming book). This presents a tremendous electoral opportunity for the GOP, but we must be bold enough to seize it, knowing that the Democrats, predictably, will scream “racist!” when we call them to account.

Between congressional results that were better than they appear upon a superficial glance and the newly hot competition for the presidential nomination, we should head into 2024 with a spirit of optimism. The Democrats aren’t going to get less crazy between now and then, and with Twitter freed from its yoke, we finally have the ability to call them out on their absurdities in a way that we have not in years.

While the party still suffers from weak institutional leadership, especially in Congress, the Trump era has re-oriented the GOP to be better aligned with its grassroots, and the corporatist and globalist forces within the party have arguably never been weaker.

The GOP has made something of a specialty out of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. But a roadmap to victory is clear if we only have the courage to follow it.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

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