Precursor to massive carnage, or fully expected minor setback in an off-year election?
In the wake of election results that weren’t exactly favorable for Republicans, that is the $64,000 question regarding the GOP’s fate.
It’s been this author’s experience not to offer commentary on such a widely covered event until the dust settles and a clearer picture emerges, because too many prognosticators get swept away in the moment and end up making wildly inaccurate predictions based on faulty analysis.
In that vein, here’s a more objective look at what the elections meant ” and what they portend for 2018:
1) First, it is critical to remember that the “inside baseball” crowd doesn’t decide elections. Instead, that honor goes to the Great American Middle ” those people who have no idea who Mitch McConnell and Donna Brazile are, and have zero interest in hearing the pros and cons about budget reconciliation to pass controversial legislation.
Our hyper-partisan society notwithstanding, what matters to them, above all, is:
â€¢ Economic security (will their job will be shipped overseas; how much remains in their paycheck after taxes; how to pay for college; and having enough money to retire);
â€¢ Physical security (North Korea launching a nuclear weapon; mitigating terrorism here and in Europe; and how mass shootings can be stopped);
â€¢ And health security (will they be able to afford quality health insurance and medications, especially in retirement and in the event of job loss).
In large part due to 24/7 news and exploding social media, there is an exponentially increased awareness among Americans that damn near everything in their lives is affected by Washington. As a result, people are paying closer attention than ever before, while simultaneously seeing their level of patience grow thin. That is why, over the last two decades, there have been unprecedented “wave” elections, where the majority party has been unceremoniously kicked to the curb (1994, 2006, 2008, 2010). The message is that, while the country remains right-of-center, people won’t tolerate stagnation and incompetence, and will continue to implement sea changes in Congress and the White House until things dramatically improve.
Adding to voters’ frustrations are constant stories of scandal in both parties. From the “rigging” of the Democratic primary election by Hillary partisans (to the detriment of Bernie Sanders), to wild sexual harassment claims against Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore in Alabama, to “collusion” of both campaigns with Russia, such headlines generate two results: Some citizens become so apathetic they end up ignoring politics altogether; while others become driven to actively organize and clean house. Given that both parties are embroiled in controversy, it remains to be seen which takes a bigger “voter fatigue” hit in 2018.
2) The prevailing headline from election day was that it was calamitous for Republicans, since the governorships of Virginia and New Jersey were won by Democrats. Wrong.
New Jersey is an overwhelmingly Democratic state, and Chris Christie’s election eight years ago was an aberration ” the result of a scandalous prior administration. Christie was successful in his first term, but became too big for his britches, literally, and quickly fell out of favor after his re-election. With Christie sitting at an incomprehensible 15 percent approval, it was a no-brainer that the GOP candidate (his lieutenant governor) had zero chance of winning.
And neither was Virginia a surprise, as no Republican had won statewide in eight years. Demographic changes continue to favor Democrats, especially in densely populated Northern Virginia, so much so that the GOP’s chances for a statewide win in Old Dominion diminish more by the year.
To say those races were a harbinger is a red herring.
3) Of much bigger significance are how races played out in traditionally Republican districts. As election day dawned, the GOP controlled 66 of 100 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates. By the time the polls closed, the carnage was obvious: 12 GOP incumbents lost, and three open seats flipped to Democrats.
Same in historically Republican areas of New York state, such as West Chester, Nassau and Suffolk counties, where Democrats won key races.
And of course, Dems made unprecedented gains here at home in Delaware and Chester counties ” including winning two Delco County Council seats for the first time in â€¦ forever, and sweeping the row offices. It’s not an exaggeration that in some cases, the last non-Republicans to hold power in these counties were Whigs and Federalists.
The only bright spot for Republicans were the statewide judicial wins in Pennsylvania ” a not-insignificant achievement given the Keystone State’s prominence in determining control of Congress and the White House.
But that was it. The question, therefore, is why the GOP lost in such convincing fashion.
4) There is no single answer. A combination of factors led to the Republicans’ dismal showing.
First, many races were in areas where demographic changes hurt the Republicans. That said, the GOP has yet to find a way to appeal to those outside its traditional coalition ” a failure clearly to its detriment.
Second, plain and simple, the Democrats outworked and out-hustled Republicans. They were hungrier, more motivated, and considerably more organized. Too many Republicans, especially in suburban areas, rested on their laurels and became lazy, allowing technology to supersede retail politicking. Sorry, but Facebook messaging and email blasts cannot replace the inherent value of going door-to-door, packing the schedule with speaking engagements and coffee klatches, and greeting commuters on freezing train platforms at five in the morning.
Victory goes to the lean and hungry ” a lesson many Republicans need to re-learn.
Third, Democrats made Donald Trump the issue ” and it worked. In races that saw historic shifts, there were no local hot-button issues that generated anti-incumbent backlash: No scandals, no tax increases, nothing. The Democrats’ message was kept simple: To vote Republican is to vote for Trump. That, along with many Democrats’ unprecedented (and in some cases, completely irrational) hatred of the president, was enough to turn the tide.
Fourth, many Republicans, including part of the president’s base, simply weren’t motivated. Some didn’t realize the importance of the elections ” in particular, that a sweeping Democratic victory would wildly energize the very people they oppose.
But much more so, many Republicans, while not abandoning their party or leaders, are totally fed up with empty promises and party infighting. They are beyond irritated that virtually nothing has been accomplished in Washington over the last year ” despite the GOP holding all the cards.
Repealing Obamacare was perhaps the most-promised Republican pledge in history, yet it remains completely intact. No border wall has been constructed. The Iran nuclear agreement has yet to be scrapped. America remains inextricably committed to keeping troops in the Middle East. North Korea’s bellicose leader ” who has threatened nuclear war against America ” has been met with bluster and non-action. Tax reform remains elusive, China seems to be getting a free pass, trade deals have not been revamped, immigration reform is nonexistent, and the travel bans remain ” illegally ” tied up in court, with the administration just rolling over to the judiciary. And that’s just for starters.
The question is whether Republican leaders, including the president, will finally enact the platform that got them elected, or if they’ll be content to play the blame game and convince themselves that Hillary, Obama and congressional Democrats are at fault.
But a word to the wise: If the GOP thinks it will retain power solely by enacting tax reform, it is mistaken. Cutting the corporate tax rate, while absolutely necessary, doesn’t resonate with the average voter. And any personal tax cut will not come in time to affect the 2018 elections. So the party needs a whole lot more if it is to survive.
The Republican Party stands at a crossroad. For it to prosper, it must articulate what it stands for, starting with an immediate nationwide media blitz. But above all, it must expand its base to include non-traditional constituencies, while not compromising what it means to be a proud Republican.
Never before has so much been possible, yet with so little results. If the Republican Party doesn’t wake up, pretty soon the Grand Old Party will be just that. Old.
Chris Freind is an independent columnist and commentator. His print column appears every Wednesday. He can be reached at [email protected].