Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of “The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism.”
Tuesday’s midterm elections were important for the country’s future. They were also crucial for the Republican Party’s future. The GOP’s massive losses in traditionally Republican suburbs have set it irretrievably on a new path. Either it re-creates a William McKinley-style coalition based on the working-class voter or it dies.
The party’s devastation in traditional, high-income suburban bastions is unmistakable. Nearly every House seat it lost was in these areas. Districts in suburban Atlanta, Houston and Dallas that voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 by between 15 and 24 points went Democratic. Districts that Republicans had held for decades outside Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia fell. The blue tide even swept away a GOP seat in Oklahoma City. This trend was more than a coastal fad.
Republicans are used to being the party of the upper middle class, and their natural reaction will be to prioritize regaining these lost ancestral homes. But they should resist that urge, at least insofar as it would conflict with efforts to serve another, crucial part of the evolving GOP coalition: working-class, Obama-Trump voters.
Those voters turned out in droves Tuesday, and their unexpected loyalty to their new party saved the GOP’s bacon. Their support captured two Minnesota House seats and rescued a number of other Republican candidates. They also propelled North Dakota’s Kevin Cramer, Indiana’s Mike Braun, Missouri’s Josh Hawley and probably Florida’s Rick Scott to victory in the Senate; had they not voted Republican, at least two of these seats would have stayed Democratic, and the post-election story line would be much different.
Their votes also secured key governorships — in Ohio and Florida (pending a recount), specifically — for the party, preserving its control over redistricting there after the 2020 Census.
Nonetheless, their importance remains drastically underappreciated by the GOP leadership. On Tuesday, in most states Obama-Trump voters’ support was high but still below 2016 levels. Had the party been willing to embrace them rather than ignore them, that support could have increased further, perhaps allowing Matt Rosendale to prevail in Montana’s Senate race. At least five House seats with large numbers of these voters also narrowly went Democratic. Overlooking these places was a mistake.
Tuesday’s results should force the GOP to court these crucial voters more aggressively. That will mean looking at what they value and making a concerted effort to meet their concerns.
These voters, whom I label TIGRs (Trump Is Great Republicans), like the president’s focus on jobs first and foremost. They don’t want entitlements to be cut; they depend on Social Security and Medicare much more in retirement than high-income suburbanites whose home equity and 401(k)s can cushion their golden years. They need protection against unfair Chinese trade practices and competition from undocumented immigrants. They are also suspicious of overseas military adventures, which should not surprise anyone given that their sons and daughters are more likely than others to fight in them.
The TIGRs need to know they are welcome in the GOP. They already know President Trump welcomes them, and it was surely his unwavering energy and focus on their concerns in the final month of the campaign that brought them out. But the party needs to ensure their loyalty beyond the man in the Oval Office.
Republican leaders in Congress should create a clear legislative agenda to address these concerns. They should make passage of something such as the Raise — Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment — Act to reduce immigration a top priority. They should propose measures cracking down on Chinese trade practices that steal U.S. jobs and industrial secrets, measures that would replace or supplement the president’s crude (and often counterproductive) use of tariffs to bring the Chinese to the negotiating table. If Republicans are going to push a new tax cut, they should build it around a payroll-tax reduction for below-median-income workers or expand on Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s idea for enhanced, refundable child tax credits.
Suburban-friendly planks should be part of this platform, too, but not to the extent they conflict with TIGR priorities. After all, based on data from the Voter Study Group’s 2016 VOTER Survey, I estimate that there are about 5.9 million TIGRs and 3 million Romney-Clinton voters. Come 2020, the GOP will need to gain only a dozen or so seats to retake the House, a mark it can easily meet by focusing on working-class Democratic districts and some close, mixed seats that Republican candidates barely lost this week. Republicans should not write off the suburbs, but they need to recognize that so long as Trump is in the White House, their ability to retake them will be limited.
George W. Bush administration Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously said you go to war with the army you’ve got. The soldiers in the GOP’s army are Midwestern and Southern working-class voters. Why not take advantage of the new playing field Trump has created, put a TIGR in its tank and reap the rewards?