The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The GOP is blowing its chance to make the midterms a referendum on Democrats

Republican gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon speaks at a primary election party in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Aug. 2. (Paul Sancya/AP)

Republicans would like the midterm elections to be a referendum on the Democrats. But that won’t be easy to pull off, as Tuesday’s primary outcomes show.

The Republican path to victory in November is easy to discern. Nominate broadly acceptable candidates who can stroke the MAGA base while appealing to moderates who backed Joe Biden. Focus attention on the president’s perceived failings, especially on inflation and immigration. Make the midterms a “change” election that lets conservatives and independents express their displeasure with the way things are going. Defer important questions about what the GOP intends to do with its power until after the election and simply reap the rewards that accrue from running against an historically unpopular president.

That playbook is working in some places. Republicans in Missouri avoided a disaster when they rejected disgraced former governor Eric Greitens and nominated state Attorney General Eric Schmitt. Two GOP House members from Washington state who voted to impeach Donald Trump also appear to have survived Trump-backed challenges, saving both seats for the party.

Elsewhere, however, primary voters’ rashness has led to some risky nominees. Arizona’s entire Republican ticket will likely be composed of candidates who have endorsed, to varying degrees, Trump’s election lies. While the governor’s race remains uncalled, current leader Kari Lake is so steeped in election conspiracy theories that she was calling her own primary race’s legitimacy into question before the vote were even tallied. The state party’s nominees for U.S. Senate, secretary of state and attorney general have also embraced the false stolen election narrative. Republican leaders have asked the party to move on and look to the future. That’s not going to happen in Arizona, giving Democrats a massive opening in the purple state.

Follow Henry Olsen's opinionsFollow

Republicans are also giving Democrats golden opportunities in Michigan. Their gubernatorial nominee, Tudor Dixon, recently said that she opposed abortion even in cases of rape or incest. The stunning victory in Kansas for abortion rights shows that this is wildly out of step with popular opinion. Dixon would be wise to try to run away from the issue and say that those are her personal views but that she would not try to implement them in office. That’s the type of dodge that pro-choice Catholic Democrats have long used: oppose abortion personally, but support abortion rights politically. If Dixon can’t or won’t move with the tide, another chance to win in a purple state will likely go by the wayside.

The Kansas vote presents a further challenge for the entire Republican campaign. Turnout was nearly double that for the 2018 primary election, showing that pro-abortion-rights Kansans were motivated to vote. At least 20 percent of Republican primary voters also voted for abortion rights, MSNBC political analyst Steve Kornacki reports. That might not indicate that similar pro-abortion-rights Republicans will vote against their party in the fall; indeed, a recent poll suggests they won’t. But pro-abortion-rights independents might not be so choosy, and Republicans need their backing to win in most swing states.

That possibility means that the national GOP should try to take abortion off the table as quickly as possible. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) should hold a joint news conference soon in which they declare unconditionally that no federal antiabortion bill will receive a vote in the next Congress if they are in charge. That’s the best thing they can do to combat Democratic efforts to paint every Republican as an abortion extremist. Such a move would have enraged pro-lifers just last week, but the Kansas debacle should show them there’s no alternative.

These risks stem from the same source: the desire of angry activists for radical, immediate change. These Republicans believe American freedom and culture are being rapidly stripped away, and they want someone who will take their country back. Its reminiscent of earlier conservative efforts to roll back the New Deal and “stand athwart history, yelling ‘Stop.’ ” It is also reminiscent of modern progressive’s desire for immediate transformation of American society.

Both movements are likely to fail for the simple reason Ronald Reagan identified in 1964: “Human nature resists change and goes over backward to avoid radical change.” Public opinion matters in democracies, and such opinion is rarely favorable to sudden shifts. That’s why the most important periods of change in U.S. history came when one side so dominated politics that their supermajorities could pass whatever they wanted. But those times usually arise in times of crisis, such as the Civil War or the Great Depression. We might be moving toward such a decisive moment, but we’re not there yet.

Biden’s effort to placate progressives and push for radical change is why Republicans are on the cusp of a potentially momentous midterm win. It would be more than ironic if the GOP’s own radicals throw that opportunity away.