The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democrats are focusing the midterms on the GOP. Republicans should welcome it.

A woman walks past the elephant logo of the Republican Party on the first day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on July 18, 2016. (Dominick Reuter/AFP/Getty Images)

Democrats have made clear they intend to make the midterm elections a battle between them and “MAGA Republicans.” The GOP should accept the challenge and respond with a tactic not used in decades: television advertising focused on the party as a whole.

Campaigning was fiercely party-driven for most of U.S. history. Candidates would, of course, try to make their own mark, but the thrust of campaigning was carried out by organized parties on behalf of the entire ticket. The result was that voters often backed a party’s slate rather than pick and choose between individuals in each race. The party whose presidential candidate won the popular vote also won control of the House in every vote during a presidential election year between 1852 and 1956.

That changed as partisan identities forged in the crucibles of the Civil War and Great Depression began to fade. As a result, voters began increasingly to split their tickets between candidates of either party. An ancestral Democrat, for example, might vote for Ronald Reagan for president and back Democrats for most other offices. Heritage Republicans moved in the opposite direction, backing Democrats for higher offices but Republicans for lower ones.

This ushered in the modern age of campaigning that focuses on personalities rather than parties. Candidates, perceiving that they could stand apart from their parties, started to raise money to fund their own advertising and distinct brands. This, in turn, created the modern campaign experience, where endless candidate ads blur into one another during election season. That is still the typical way campaigns unfold. Today, it’s increasingly common for individual candidates to raise tens of millions of dollars for their own races.

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But this approach no longer makes much political sense. Hyper-partisan polarization has dramatically reduced the number of voters willing to split their tickets between candidates of opposing parties. This is evidenced by the small number of House districts that vote for one party for Congress and another party for president. As recently as 2008, this was the case for 20 percent of House seats. In 2020, only 16 of the 435 districts — or less than 4 percent — returned a member from a different party from the top of the ticket.

The Senate is following the same pattern. In 2016, every state elected a senator of the same party as that of the presidential candidate who won the state, the first time that had happened since the 17th Amendment mandated the direct election of senators in 1913. In 2020, only Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) won in a state that the other party’s nominee won. Simply put, voters today first decide which party they favor and then look to see who that party is putting up for office.

This means Republicans must fight fire with fire. If Democrats are going to use the president’s bully pulpit to fan partisan flames, Republicans must fight back. Lacking control of either chamber of Congress, they cannot use their offices to push their messages. That leaves only one option: large-scale television campaigns.

Those ads would, like any good campaign, strike both positive and negative poses. The positive ads would extol what — and who — Republicans are. Republicans are often mischaracterized as old, White and male, but the reality is anything but. A good GOP ad campaign would play up the many officeholders and voters from all genders and ethnic backgrounds and send the message that the Republican Party welcomes all.

The positive messages should also be broad and aspirational, evoking the desire to renew the American promise for our troubled times. They should resist the urge among many in the base to strike tones of fear of the future and a return to the past. That might resonate among the party’s devout, but if those beliefs were widespread, Republicans would already be the majority. The party needs to strike the balance between past and future that President Abraham Lincoln struck in the Gettysburg Address: “a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Party-focused campaigns have helped deliver some of the GOP’s largest election wins. Its 1946 midterm campaign, also fought in a time of rampant inflation, used the slogan “Had Enough?” and resulted in a large Republican wave. The 1980 GOP effort funded party-focused ads that both appealed to unease with the country’s direction and addressed people who had rarely if ever voted Republican with the cute slogan “Vote Republican. For a Change.” A 2022 GOP campaign could recycle these two winners, which are still presciently relevant to the times.

President Biden’s record unpopularity gives Republicans a chance for a landslide win. Running a strong, nationwide television campaign for the entire party could seal it for them.

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