Republicans Can't Stop Hurting Themselves
For Republicans to break the Democrats’ hold on the White House, hard-line conservatives may have to loosen their grip on red states. That’s a corollary to an argument put forth by political scientist Thomas Schaller in his 2015 book, “The Stronghold.”
Schaller’s thesis is that Republican success in deeply conservative, overwhelmingly white congressional districts is preventing the party from altering its ideological and demographic course to make it possible to win presidential campaigns. Instead of remaking itself to appeal to a more diverse and moderate national majority, the GOP’s “rising congressional fortunes have led the party quite rationally down a path that has made retrenchment more attractive and recovery less so,” Schaller wrote.
In effect, it’s hard to convince hard-core conservatives who keep winning elections that their party is a mess. And through a sustained campaign of massive resistance to President Barack Obama and the federal government, conservatives keep on winning at the state and local level.
Depending on how you measure it, Democrats in Congress, governors’ offices and state legislatures have lost either a lot of seats or a ton of seats to Republicans since Obama moved into the White House. In the House of Representatives, Republicans have a commanding lead of 246 seats to 188 for Democrats (with one vacancy). Republican governors preside over 31 states while Democrats run only 18. Just seven states are under unified Democratic control of the governor’s office and legislature. For Republicans, the corresponding number is 22.
Republican success in red states, however, carries a price not unlike the party’s success in conservative House districts. Republican governors, such as South Carolina’s Nikki Haley and Nevada’s Brian Sandoval, are more diverse than their comrades in Washington. But many governors and state legislators continue to appeal to an increasingly narrow slice of the electorate. Republicans’ older white core voters dominate in both red districts and states. But nationally, they’re declining as a percentage of the electorate.
The Democrats’ base of racial minorities, immigrants, young people and unmarried women is growing. There is no long-term scenario in which Republicans can compete nationally without improving their vote share among the growing parts of the electorate.
So let’s see how Republicans in red states are addressing these deficits.
Texas Republicans have spearheaded the legal challenge to Obama’s executive actions that would ease the threat of deportation and increase work opportunities for millions of undocumented immigrants. The lawsuit is joined by two dozen other red states.
The lawsuit echoes and reinforces the position of House Republicans, who voted to make even Dreamers, undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children, ineligible for any path to legalization or citizenship. When the GOP fiasco of 2016 is over, Republicans will no doubt seek to explain that the hostility to immigrants voiced by Donald Trump and Ted Cruz doesn’t reflect the party as a whole. Their argument is unlikely to be persuasive, especially among immigrants, young people, and millions of Asians and Hispanics.
Fresh off their unsuccessful efforts to deny gays and lesbians the right to marry, conservative states are now engaged in symbolic attacks on transgender rights. North Carolina just passed a law prohibiting transgender people from using public bathrooms that do not match the sexes on their birth certificates. (An interesting enforcement quandary, wouldn’t you say?) The law, which was passed with minimal debate, may inadvertently invalidate civil rights protections for other groups, as well.
North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory complained that the law had provoked a “vicious, nationwide smear campaign” against his state, which tells you what a resounding political success it has been. But McCrory and his Republican colleagues have one thing going for them: Americans over 65 are solidly opposed to letting transgender people use the bathroom of their choice. Perhaps Republicans can enlist those grandparents to convince their grandchildren, who will be voting for decades to come, to change their majority support for the opposite position.
While public support for LGBT rights is sharply on the rise, the issue of abortion is never clear-cut. The American electorate has maintained a muddled approach for years, mostly supporting abortion rights but with restrictions. However, the efforts by Republican states, including Mississippi and Texas, to regulate abortion out of existence, may not be a boon to Republican efforts to recruit more unmarried women -- or any others -- into their party.
The Guttmacher Institute reports that more than one-quarter of state abortion restrictions enacted since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973 have taken effect in the past five years. Perhaps not coincidentally, the number of Americans who self-identify as “pro-choice” has risen over the same period.
Of course, if you’re losing traction with just about every growing part of the electorate, you might conclude that making it harder to vote is a really good idea. But Republican states have already done that, further alienating minority voters while doing nothing to change the party’s strategic dilemma.
In fact, Republican options are roughly the same today as they were when Obama was first elected in 2008: They can change or retreat. Time and again, they’ve chosen the latter. “There is little centrist Republican apparatus to counterbalance the party’s powerful conservative infrastructure,” Schaller wrote. Paradoxically, Republican victories in red states, like their victories in conservative Congressional districts, only encourage the adoption of policies that make them less able to compete for the White House.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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