Politics & Policy

The GOP’s Orange County Problem

President Trump and Arizona Republican senatorial candidate Martha McSally at a rally in Mesa, Ariz. October 19, 2018. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Republicans need to win back the suburbs to prevent a 2020 disaster.

I have long felt that both Republican and Democratic interpretations of the 2016 presidential election were wishful, and did not match the evidence.

Republicans said that President Trump’s sweep of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Michigan meant there was a new kind of working-class, blue-collar GOP voter who represented a sweeping paradigm shift in the American electorate. This interpretation had prima facie support. No Republican had won Pennsylvania or Michigan in a long time. That candidate Trump had to run an “inside straight” with these states to win was never really in question, but that he would do so was always thought to be a long shot. When he pulled it off, his supporters were understandably emboldened.

But there were a few caveats that never really got due attention amid the Republican excitement sparked by that Rust Belt sweep. Most important, Trump’s midwestern victories were about as narrow as could be. Out of 4.8 million votes cast in Michigan, Trump received 11,000 more votes than Hillary Clinton. In Wisconsin, he won by 23,000 votes out of nearly 3 million votes cast, and in Pennsylvania, he won by just over 40,000 votes out of almost 6 million votes cast. A win is a win, but with wins that narrow, it would be wise to temper the political conclusions one draws.

Republicans are right to state that President Trump secured working-class voters whom prior Republican candidates had not. They are also right to conclude that this demographic provided the slight mathematical edge he needed to win the White House. They are not right, however, to imply that this tells the whole story. Hillary Clinton was a deeply unpopular candidate, untrusted, unliked, and most of all, uninspiring. All of Trump’s success with blue-collar white voters would have been for naught if Clinton had just been able to up turnout ever so slightly. There are Obama voters who migrated to Trump, but there is no evidence more compelling than the Obama voter who simply didn’t vote. Hillary Clinton made Donald Trump president.

The Democrats’ response to that fact was delusional. Rather than focus on their lack of message, their failure to connect with American voters, the inadequacy of their candidate, or the reality of lost ground with working-class whites, they either retreated into a bizarre belief that Russia tainted the results (without evidence) or complained that James Comey flipped the results to Trump at the last minute (which ignores the question of why it was ever close enough for that to be possible). In short, they blamed anything and everything other than themselves for the loss.

In the wake of last week’s midterms, both parties would be wise to avoid the same interpretive mistakes, because the results contained sobering lessons for both. Republicans need only look to once-deep-red Orange County, in southern California, to see the peril that lies ahead. Democrats, meanwhile, need a good long look in the mirror.

First, the lesson for Democrats: Don’t launch an outrageous character assassination against an innocent man, pervert justice and decency, and wave it around on national television as a means of blocking a Supreme Court justice. The major wins of Election Night for Republicans were in the U.S. Senate, where they picked up Democratic seats in the red states of Missouri, Indiana, and North Dakota. At least two of these three would surely have stayed blue if it were not for Democrats’ decision to drag the Kavanaugh fight into the mud. Think of the national conversation we would be having right now if the Democrats had held on to those three seats: Pending the results of the ongoing Florida recount, we might have been looking at a 51–49 Democrat Senate, or a 50-50 deadlock. Instead, we’re probably looking at 53–47 GOP-controlled. Senate. The outrageous behavior of Democratic extremists was one of the biggest unforced political errors in recent memory, and it did not even succeed in blocking the wildly qualified Judge Kavanaugh from being confirmed.

The lesson for Republicans is much more significant, and much more obvious. Republicans were spared an even rougher Election Night by the fact that many of their losses took another week to become official, and by the aforementioned Senate wins. But Republicans still lost seven governorships, somewhere between 35 and 40 House seats, and two purple-state Senate seats (Arizona and Nevada). And those losses were entirely due to the alienation of one critical demographic: Suburban Republicans and Independents who are repulsed by the style of Donald J. Trump.

Orange County, Calif., is Ronald Reagan country. It has been reliably red for my entire life. The fact of demographic change has not hurt Republicans’ voter-registration advantage, which is still around ten percentage points in two red county districts that look set to send Democrats to Congress next year. The fact is that a significant number of center-Right, fiscally conservative, suburban, upper-middle-class voters have found the present message of the Republican party repugnant. Elsewhere in the country, these voters carried Republicans to victory in 2016, even as Hillary Clinton became the first Democrat to win a presidential vote in Orange County since the Great Depression.

Begrudging the state of the Golden State is what we do at Radio Free California, but my purposes here are not California-centric. The factors at play in Orange County are a microcosm of the factors at play nationwide. The question for Republicans is: What can we do to solidify the working-class white coalition that President Trump has built without repelling more moderate, independent, and suburbanite voters who are crucial to both parties’ success?

To make this as clear as can be, any belief that Republicans can continue to have electoral success nationwide without both sets of voters is utter hogwash. If they can find a way to thread that needle, 2020 becomes a very interesting proposition, particularly given the increasing possibility that Democrats could nominate a progressive extremist to face Trump. But if Republicans can’t — if center-Right suburbanites aren’t won back to the party — Election Night 2020 will make the GOP’s midterm defeats seem painless by comparison.


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