The Republican Party has been plunged into ever more turmoil, thanks to the outcome of the off-year election in Virginia, the results of contests elsewhere around the country and an allegation of sexual misconduct against Roy Moore, the party’s candidate for Senate in Alabama.
The Virginia gubernatorial campaign illustrated the Republican dilemma as it morphs into becoming the party of President Trump. For Ed Gillespie, the attempt at a balancing act proved awkward and ultimately unsuccessful. A candidate with deep roots in the establishment wing of the party, he tried, after receiving a scare in the primary from a pro-Trump opponent, to become more Trumpian.
The controversy over whether Moore should step aside in the face of an accusation of sexual misconduct with a teenager highlights the waning power of GOP leaders to affect the party’s fortunes and the split with the Republican ranks about how to deal with such problems. Moore has denied the allegation.
In Virginia, Gillespie’s strategy didn’t work. He lost to Democrat Ralph Northam by an unexpectedly wide margin of nine points. The margin of defeat has rightly rattled Republicans who wonder whether this portends an anti-Trump wave in next year’s midterm elections. The size of Northam’s margins among women (22 points) and voters younger than 45 (30 points) should add significantly to those concerns.
Virginia is not the nation. It has been trending blue for some time. Its population includes more college graduates than many states, and the proximity to the nation’s capital affects attitudes about the federal government. It is not Pennsylvania or Michigan or Wisconsin, states with different electorates, as the 2016 results demonstrated. But as the principal data point staring at Republicans over the weekend, Virginia illustrates why the debate about the party’s fate under Trump will accelerate. There are no easy answers.
The president had an instant opinion about what went wrong in Virginia. He weighed in with a tweet of displeasure at Gillespie’s campaign soon after Northam was declared the winner. Gillespie’s mistake was not embracing Trump more fully, the president said from South Korea. In one sense, the president is correct: Among Republicans, taking on the president can extract a very high price. It’s the rest of the electorate that worries party leaders looking to next year.
All that could be compounded by the unfolding Alabama story and the question of whether Moore will hold firm and continue his candidacy. Whether he stays or goes, the party faces more internal division.
Republicans have been dealing with a split between their establishment wing and a populist insurgency for some time. This is a function of the widening socioeconomic coalition that now comprises the Republican Party, a coalition that includes what used to be called country club Republicans; evangelical Christians, who became a powerful force inside the party beginning with Ronald Reagan (and who are no longer a monolithic political force); and a 21st-century version of what once were called Reagan Democrats. Trump has added an additional layer.
The tea party was a manifestation of the tensions within the party. Its rise in 2010 produced some of the same kinds of divisions that former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon is trying to generate today — dissatisfaction aimed at the party’s Washington leadership.
Before there was candidate Trump, the Republicans were embroiled in a different kind of debate about their future. That dispute was symbolized by the presidential candidacies of Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas. Cruz represented the view that the party should double down on its conservative values and rally what he said was its silent, conservative base. Rubio envisioned an appeal designed to expand the GOP coalition in a different way, by attracting more Latinos and younger voters.
The argument was a response to Barack Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012. Cruz said the party lost those elections not because Republican policies and ideas were too conservative and its appeal too narrow. He argued that the problem was that Sen. John McCain in 2008 and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in 2012 were not sufficiently or authentically conservative. It was Cruz’s belief that there were in fact millions of conservative voters who were on the sidelines because their presidential nominees were not true conservative champions.
Rubio had a different vision, grounded in the changing demographics of the country and concerns that a party dependent on white voters for 85 to 90 percent of its support, as the GOP has become, would have a diminished future as the nation’s population became increasingly diverse. Rubio and others argued that the votes needed to win the White House could be found among those rising populations, if the party presented itself as open and welcoming to them, with policies to match.
Candidate Trump ran roughshod over those issues and questions. He attracted his own coalition, found a path through the states in the upper Midwest that secured his electoral college victory, and along the way rewrote the rules for how a Republican could win the presidency.
Now the party is at an inflection point, brought about by the president’s electoral success and the reactions of both Democrats, Republicans and independents to what has happened in the year since that victory. Can they prosper if they truly become the party of Trump? Or are they more likely to suffer losses in midterm elections because, whether they do or not, they are now seen as the party of Trump?
Congressional Republicans hope that passing a tax bill will ease public frustrations with their performance and boost their chances in 2018, but something larger is at work in the way voters are seeing the stakes of a Trump presidency.
One question is whether the coalition that Trump assembled in 2016 is his and uniquely his. Democrats found that there can be a huge difference between perceptions of a president and his party. Backed by the enthusiastic support of young voters and minorities, including historic turnout among African Americans, Obama twice won the presidency with a majority of the vote.
Meanwhile, his party suffered devastating losses in midterm elections in 2010 and 2014 and the presidential election of 2016. It became clear that the Obama coalition was not easily transferrable to other Democratic candidates, as Hillary Clinton learned last year. As a result, by 2017, the party no longer controlled the White House, the House or the Senate, held fewer than a third of the nation’s governorships and had lost power in state legislatures across the country. Democrats are still trying to recover from that, the Virginia election notwithstanding.
Perhaps it’s the same for the Trump coalition. It’s possible that, no matter how much they embrace him, other Republican candidates will not be able to generate the kind of energy for themselves that Trump did for his candidacy. Meanwhile, as the Virginia race showed, voters dissatisfied with the president — particularly women — appear highly motivated to turn out to register their unhappiness.
In the days after the Virginia election, SurveyMonkey, the online polling firm, asked people whether they thought the Republicans should become the party of Trump or fight against becoming the party of Trump. Among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, almost 8 in 10 said the GOP should become the party of Trump. The rest of the electorate strongly disagrees.
The implications of that are clear, as Gillespie found during the Virginia race. For Republican candidates, crossing the president risks the ire of the Trump base and depressed turnout. Embracing him too fully risks energizing the opposition. Trump won’t be on the ballot until 2020. In the meantime, he has made the GOP his party, and those who share the label are left to deal with the consequences.