The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Moderate Republicans aren’t dead. They’re hiding in plain sight.

Even deep red states like Kansas and Oklahoma are turning away from the tea party brand

Voters lined up before dawn on Tuesday  in Owasso, Okla., a suburb of Tulsa, which Forbes recently ranked the top city in the country for young entrepreneurs. (Mike Simons/Tulsa World via AP)
Voters lined up before dawn on Tuesday in Owasso, Okla., a suburb of Tulsa, which Forbes recently ranked the top city in the country for young entrepreneurs. (Mike Simons/Tulsa World via AP)
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Moderate Republicans, always prone to pessimism, had ample reason for despair after Tuesday’s House election results. Many of their favorite representatives went down to defeat, including Mike Coffman in Colorado, Carlos Curbelo in Florida, Mia Love in Utah and Barbara Comstock in Virginia. Moderate GOP factions in the House, such as the Tuesday Group and the Republican Main Street Partnership, may see their memberships cut nearly in half.

President Trump claimed at his post-election news conference that these moderates lost because they didn’t embrace his agenda with sufficient enthusiasm. But of course his divisive populism and demagoguery are what turned off the white, college-educated suburbanites (particularly women) who made up the moderates’ base. If suburbanites have become permanently alienated from the GOP brand, then moderate Republicans seem likely to follow the Blue Dog Democrats into political irrelevancy.

Yet the picture looks considerably more favorable for moderates below the level of national politics. Two of the most popular politicians in the country right now are Maryland’s Larry Hogan and Massachusetts’s Charlie Baker, Republican governors of heavily Democratic states who easily won reelection Tuesday. And even in deep-red states, such as Kansas and Oklahoma, there are indications that moderation may be the political wave of the future.

Kansas and Oklahoma have followed similar political trajectories over the past few years. The two Republican states elected tea party conservatives as governors — Sam Brownback in Kansas, Mary Fallin in Oklahoma — who promised that radical tax-cutting would usher in economic utopia. When growth failed to materialize, the fiscally ruinous tax cuts predictably led to severe budget shortfalls: $900 million in Kansas and $1.3 billion in Oklahoma. To cope, the Republican-dominated legislatures imposed draconian reductions on spending for public schools, road maintenance, law enforcement agencies, social programs and other government responsibilities. In Oklahoma, per-pupil funding decreased by 28 percent (adjusted for inflation) between 2008 and 2018, while Kansas universities have lost more than a quarter of their state support (in real terms) since 2001.

To the conservatives’ surprise, these actions produced a massive public backlash from the states’ growing middle classes. One result of unaffordable real estate prices in coastal cities has been a migration of jobs and middle-class citizens toward inland “secondary cities ” with cheaper housing and a lower cost of living. Oklahoma City, for example, has been one of the fastest-growing cities in the country over the past decade, particularly for young adults, and Forbes recently ranked Tulsa the top city in the country for young entrepreneurs.

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While many of Oklahoma’s rural counties and small towns have continued to shed population, its urban areas have grown so much that they now are home to two-thirds of the state’s residents. In Oklahoma City, according to local officials, much of the 10 percent population increase over the past decade has come from well-educated millennials and Hispanics. There’s a long list of other inland urban areas around the country that have experienced similar demographic transformations, including Atlanta; Austin; Boise, Idaho; Nashville; and Salt Lake City.

The influx of college-educated, middle-class (and often young) residents into the metropolitan areas of conservative states changes local and state politics in subtle but important ways. The most noticeable evidence of this change, earlier this year, was high levels of public support for teachers’ strikes in red states where public education has been starved by conservative governments, including Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma and West Virginia. Middle-class Americans tend to value education as the primary means for their children to advance in a globalized economy that places an ever-greater premium on high-skilled labor. This pits them against small-government Republicans who do not value education in quite the same terms — and who, in Oklahoma, apparently saw no problem with school districts losing qualified teachers to higher-paying states, enduring outdated textbooks and deteriorating facilities, and cutting back to four-day weeks. Kansas, meanwhile, cut more education funding over a decade than all but seven other states.

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The battle against conservative excesses in Kansas and Oklahoma has mainly taken place within the dominant Republican Party. Although conventional wisdom decrees that moderate Republicans must forever quake in fear over the threat of primary challenges from the right, at the state level moderates are primarying conservatives from the center — and winning. In Kansas in 2016, moderates entered GOP primaries and helped drive dozens of conservatives out of the legislature, then overrode Brownback’s veto of a bill rescinding his tax cuts. In Oklahoma this year, moderate Republican candidates, working with the Step Up Oklahoma coalition, defeated nearly all of the state legislators who had voted against raising teacher salaries.

While these low-level contests received little national attention, the midterm elections revealed that the political picture in states like Kansas and Oklahoma (as well as other red states, where voters backed some surprisingly liberal ballot measures, from Medicaid expansion to marijuana legalization to minimum-wage increases) is more complicated than many pollsters and pundits had realized. In Kansas’s 3rd Congressional District, which includes part of the Kansas City metro area, fourth-term Republican Rep. Kevin Yoder was defeated by Sharice Davids, an LGBT Native American Democrat. Kris Kobach, who cemented his Trumpist credentials by running a presidential commission investigating the nonexistent problem of widespread voter fraud, lost the Kansas governor’s race to Democrat Laura Kelly. And in Oklahoma, two-term Republican Rep. Steve Russell, who had won his previous reelection bid by 20 points, lost to Democrat Kendra Horn in what was probably the single biggest upset of the midterms. (The FiveThirtyEight website had given her a less than 7 percent chance of victory.)

Horn’s win came in Oklahoma’s 5th District, which encompasses most of Oklahoma City and had been occupied by Republicans since 1975. Another obvious indication of the district’s changing identity is Mick Cornett, who served as mayor of Oklahoma City from 2004 to April of this year. He established a national reputation as a pro-government Republican who persuaded residents to invest in economic development and urban amenities, including bike paths, a streetcar system, and a man-made white-water rafting and kayaking center along the Oklahoma River . He backed state tax increases to raise teacher salaries, opposed his party’s efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, supported a local gay rights ordinance , and co-wrote an op-ed with New York’s Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio urging more federal support for transportation and public works.

Cornett lost the Republican gubernatorial nomination this year to Tulsa businessman Kevin Stitt, which suggests that the moderate revolution still has a ways to go in Oklahoma. But while many red states will continue to be tough battlegrounds for Democrats, even in growing metropolitan areas, an increasing number of Republicans in those states may move toward Cornett-style, get-it-done moderation and away from tea party conservatism.

James and Deborah Fallows, authors of the recent book “Our Towns,” traveled extensively around smaller urban areas in heartland America in the course of their research. They discovered that, in contrast to the hyper-partisanship and gridlock at the federal level, local politics retains a penchant for collaboration, reasonable compromise and long-term vision. If there’s any hope for our collective political future, it’s that such pragmatism will percolate up from our local politics to our national politics. And the 2018 midterm results suggest that green shoots of moderation are breaking out, even in the states that many East Coast liberals think are hopelessly addicted to Trump’s brand of divisive cultural warfare.

Twitter: @RuleandRuin

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