The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Republicans have a strategy to take back power. Here’s why it could fail.

Then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), center, and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), left, at the White House in 2017. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Republicans in Congress will tell you that they are positively burning with a fever to get down to work for the American people, which is why 45 GOP senators voted Tuesday to essentially cancel former president Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial. It’s just too much of a distraction from all the problem-solving they have on their agenda, you see.

The truth, of course, is that there’s really only one goal Republicans have right now: getting back in power, first in 2022 by taking back one or both houses in the midterms, and then in 2024, in the next presidential election. And they’ve already settled on a three-part strategy to do it.

The strategy might work; each of the three parts has historical precedent to suggest it could be effective. But each part could also backfire by alienating independent voters and motivating Democrats.

Let’s run through the strategy:

Follow Paul Waldman's opinionsFollow

Step 1: Obstruct the Biden agenda. This is a straightforward repeat of the tactic Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell used against former president Barack Obama. By preventing a Democratic president and congressional majority from accomplishing anything, you convince the public that “Washington” is broken and ineffectual; when voters come to that conclusion, they tend to toss out the party in charge, regardless of whose fault it is.

It will also prevent Democrats from making the case that they delivered on their promises. So, in two years, voters may conclude the Democratic majority hasn’t delivered any real benefits.

The danger for Republicans in total obstruction, however, is that today, Democrats have a much better understanding of how the GOP strategy works and what it produces.

Consider the filibuster. Maintaining it is the core of McConnell’s plan; if 60 votes are required to pass nearly anything in a chamber with only 50 Democrats (plus Vice President Harris’s tie-breaking vote), then nothing gets passed.

Right now, certain centrist Democrats including Sens. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) have emphatically stated that they won’t vote to eliminate the filibuster. But the better McConnell’s obstruction works, the more they’ll be pressured to at least reform the filibuster to allow critical bills to pass. They’ll have to decide which is more important to them: a procedural legacy of Jim Crow, or the things they actually got elected to do. The odds that at least some changes to the filibuster get made are increasing by the day.

And if the filibuster is changed, and Democrats can deliver genuine benefits to the public, their chances of holding on to their majorities go up dramatically.

Step 2: Suppress the vote. Republicans understand quite well that their power is based on structural factors and rules that allow them to win despite the fact that many more Americans support Democrats. In 2020, Trump tried to suppress Democrats’ votes, but his efforts turned out to be too haphazard and transparent to work.

So Republicans are already trying to beef up the voter suppression project they’ve been working on for years. As a new report from the Brennan Center for Justice documents, so far in 2021, “legislators have introduced three times the number of bills to restrict voting access as compared to this time last year.” They include new restrictions on mail voting, stricter ID requirements, bans on ballot dropboxes, barriers to registration and aggressive voter purges.

Voter suppression often works, but it can also produce a backlash — just as we saw in 2020 when turnout was higher than it had been in decades. And while Republican state legislators are moving to restrict the vote, Democratic legislators are trying just as hard to expand voting access. The Brennan Center report shows that there have also been over twice as many bills filed to make voting easier as there were last year.

Step 3: Motivate the GOP base by going full Trumpist. While the whole party may not agree with this part of the strategy, it’s happening whether anyone likes it or not. To take one vivid example, Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio), a traditional Bush-style Republican, just announced his retirement; there’s a good chance he’ll be replaced by Trump hype man Rep. Jim Jordan.

Other long-serving Republican senators may also head for the door, and in every case the odds will favor the loudest and most extreme candidates to win the party nomination. As one Republican strategist close to Portman told National Journal, this is a great time to serve if you want to spend all your time being an “a--hole” on Fox News, but "if you want to spend all your time being thoughtful and getting s---t done, there’s never been a worse time to serve.”

While the national GOP shifts even further right and gets even more loony, the same thing is happening at the state level. For example, the Pennsylvania Republican Party, which once produced such moderates as Sens. Arlen Specter and John Heinz and Gov. Tom Ridge, has now been taken over by conspiracy theorists and extremists eager to overturn elections to serve Trump.

But while keeping the party base in a deluded frenzy can juice turnout, it can also produce a backlash both from Democrats and moderate Republicans, a backlash greater in size than whatever benefits Republicans get. Which is exactly what happened in 2018 and 2020.

Republicans have some good reasons to think this three-part strategy will work. In the end, it will be the strength or weakness of the Democratic response that determines whether it does.

Read more:

Greg Sargent: Mitch McConnell’s latest sabotage effort is a scam. He already showed us how.

Greg Sargent: Can Democrats exercise a mini-nuclear option against McConnell?

Gary Abernathy: How red has Ohio become? The race to succeed Portman may provide the answer.

Jennifer Rubin: 50 things that are better already

Brian Klaas: Why is it so hard to deprogram Trumpian conspiracy theorists?