The GOP’s new voter coalition is no longer unified around the party’s old verities. A January poll of Trump voters I crafted clearly shows this. Trump’s coalition is divided on core economic questions such as cutting entitlement spending, free trade and cutting the income tax rate paid by those in the top bracket. The party is even split over whether to provide all Americans with a basic minimum standard of living provided people work to the best of their ability. In each case, the new Republicans — people who voted for President Barack Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2020 — are significantly to the left of the base GOP voter.
Republican officeholders and prospective presidential candidates all see this disunity, but they are divided on how to respond. So far, they have separated themselves into five rough groups.
The Old Guard are those who don’t want to change at all. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) are leading voices in this group. Cheney sealed her fate within the Republican leadership when, in response to a memo exploring what a Republican working-class party might offer its voters, called the piece’s class-based political and criticism of large corporations as “neo-Marxist.” Toomey, who served as president of the influential libertarian-leaning Club for Growth PAC before he became a senator, has also derided efforts to shift the party’s core economic message. His May 2020 speech at the Heritage Foundation, “In Defense of Capitalism,” vigorously defended the old-line free-market fundamentalism. To these members and their allies in the conservative think tank and academic worlds, nothing from the last decade justifies changing the GOP’s approach to domestic policy.
The Adapters recognize that times have changed, but propose minimal shifts in party doctrine. Former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley is a leading proponent of this view. She generally supports Trump’s attempts to control illegal immigration and his confrontational approach to China. Haley has otherwise aligned herself with the Old Guard, attacking efforts to rethink orthodoxy in a speech at the Hudson Institute and in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. Other potential 2024 contenders, such as former vice president Mike Pence and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), have similarly adopted Trump’s positions on these issues without significantly deviating from their long-held views on the role of the federal government in the economy.
The Searchers are those who know they have to change but are still actively trying to find their way. Chief among them are Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), the head of the Republican Study Committee. The RSC has 158 members, nearly 75 percent of the 211-member House Republican Conference, making it the most influential of the House GOP’s caucuses. Banks drafted a memo to Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in March urging him to embrace the recent political changes and rebrand the GOP as “the Party of the Working Class.” The RSC is working on a comprehensive policy agenda that would move the Republican Party away from its traditional, uncritical support for big business and toward support for the U.S. worker.
The Reformers have vocally been calling for such a comprehensive rethink for many years. Led by a trio of young senators — Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) — they have blazed the trail with speeches and ideas to recast U.S. capitalism. Rubio’s 2019 speech on restoring “common good capitalism” provided a theoretical justification for this stance. It was epitomized by his leadership in crafting the Paycheck Protection Program and his support for the failed effort to unionize an Amazon warehouse in Alabama. Cotton has drafted bills calling for an increase in the minimum wage, government subsidization for domestic semiconductor manufacturing, and returning money collected from tariffs on Chinese goods to working and middle-class taxpayers. Hawley has blasted Big Tech, calling to remove their Section 230 protection, and spoken widely about how the economy has failed too many Americans in recent decades. Together, they are pushing Republicans to reposition themselves quickly and comprehensively.
The final group is currently the smallest, the Prophets. Led by Ohio senatorial candidate and author J.D. Vance, the Prophets call for even more change than the Reformers. Vance goes where others have feared to tread, calling for tax hikes on companies that move jobs out of the United States. His 2019 speech at the National Conservatism Conference, “Beyond Libertarianism,” was a thorough and searing critique of how the worship of market forces has led to far too many impoverished Americans. If Vance wins his primary next year, the power of his critiques will surely increase the Prophets’ ranks.
Democrats want to focus voters’ attention on Trump and paint the entire Republican Party in his image. The outcome of this internal debate, however, will ultimately have more impact in determining whether the GOP cannot only survive, but thrive.