Midterms exposed Dems’ big weakness, but will GOP take advantage in 2020?

Midterms exposed Dems’ big weakness, but will GOP take advantage in 2020?
© Greg Nash

Another midterm election has come and gone, with no shortage of intriguing storylines. For opponents of President TrumpDonald John TrumpMichelle Obama says not always easy to live up to "we go high" Georgia certifies elections results in bitterly fought governor's race Trump defends border deployment amid fresh scrutiny MORE, the much-touted “blue wave” did come to pass – sort of – with Democrats gaining a slight majority in the House that they likely will use to impair the current administration as much as possible. Yet, Democrats lost seats in the Senate, boosting Republicans’ hopes of holding that chamber in 2020 and allowing Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSunday shows preview: New members preview agendas after Democratic House takeover Trump set to have close ally Graham in powerful chairmanship As Democrats gear up to challenge Trump in 2020, the key political divide will be metropolitan versus rural MORE (R-Ky.) to continue to fill the judiciary with Trump nominees.

While these surface-level developments are likely to be the focus of most post-election analyses, this year’s midterms also exposed deeper, less visible trends which could have massive implications for 2020 and beyond.

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One such development was noted by Politico in a story last week. In reviewing a number of primary victories this year by insurgent Democratic candidates, the report carefully sketches a growing divide in the Democratic Party between its mostly wealthy and white progressive activist wing — which has supported candidates like Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) — and its primarily blue-collar and minority base, which generally backs the party’s more establishment candidates such as Rep. Joe CrowleyJoseph (Joe) CrowleyOcasio-Cortez backs campaigns to replace Dem incumbents with progressives House Dems split on how to tackle climate change Midterms exposed Dems’ big weakness, but will GOP take advantage in 2020? MORE, who Ocasio-Cortez defeated in a party primary.

The divide is further described using the image of an hourglass, with elite party members occupying the top and the working-class base on the bottom.

This divide is not new to the party, nor is it exclusively a Democrat phenomenon. Indeed, the Republican Party has its own version of this hourglass divide, one made especially visible during the GOP’s contentious 2016 presidential primary.

Two years ago, however, the Republican elite — best personified in establishment candidates Jeb Bush (R-Fla.) and John Kasich (R-Ohio) — was overwhelmed by an uprising among the party’s base, which ultimately opted for outsider Donald Trump. Curiously, Democrats’ equivalent 2018 uprising appears to be happening from the opposite direction, with the party’s relatively affluent activist elite driving out establishment candidates favored by the base.

This may be the best explanation for Democrats’ mixed results last night. The party generally made its biggest gains in areas where people are more likely to care about ascendant progressive causes such as climate change, unlimited immigration, or LGBT rights; for example, most House districts which were rated as tossups by RealClearPolitics prior to the election were either fully or partially suburban. However, in the parts of middle America which turned dramatically toward Trump and his culturally conservative message in 2016, Democrats made only minimal gains or even lost ground, as best illustrated by Senate defeats in North Dakota, Missouri, Indiana and Florida. While Democrats’ leftward lurch was likely helpful in motivating some of their voters, it did not drive the “blue tsunami” for which many liberal pundits were avidly cheering.

Some liberals already clearly recognize the potential danger which this growing cultural divide poses to the future of the Democratic Party. In addition to the Politico piece, a recent New York Times column by Thomas Edsall ominously frames the issue, noting that Democrats’ focus on social issues to the detriment of economic ones — driven by the party’s progressive activist wing — likely led to defeat in 2016 and could permanently alienate a large portion of the Democrats’ working-class base, particularly those white working-class voters who proved key to Trump’s 2016 victory in the Midwest. Whether or not Democrats heed these warnings remains to be seen.

However, this serious problem for Democrats also represents Republicans’ most significant opportunity. Hamstrung for years by an elite-driven focus on economic issues such as corporate tax cuts and “job creation,” best exemplified in Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyUtah New Members 2019 The Hill's 12:30 Report — Sponsored by Delta Air Lines — Leadership elections in Congress | Freshman lawmakers arrive | Trump argues he can restrict reporter access Rick Scott appears with GOP senators, ignores voter fraud question as recount continues MORE’s failed 2012 campaign, the Republican Party finally found success in 2016, thanks to Trump’s intuitive understanding that cultural issues are not a weakness for the GOP but, rather, one of its biggest strengths. Democrats’ embrace of radical causes, such as taxpayer funding for abortion, open borders and ever-expanding legal definitions of gender, are unpopular with most Americans — even many within their own base — and Republicans’ chances for victory depend on their taking advantage of it.

This means that a successful GOP strategy in 2020 will not focus exclusively on tax cuts and economic growth, as good as those things are. Rather, Republicans will need to adopt different policy priorities in order to win over working-class voters alienated by Democrats’ extreme cultural leftism — and to re-energize the suburban, family-oriented voters who form an indispensable part of their own base. Possibilities for such an agenda include pro-family economic proposals like paid family leave, a tax deduction for all forms of child care, and making the increased child tax credit fully refundable; education legislation which recognizes and supports parents’ primary role in their children’s schooling; protections for faith-based adoption agencies, hospitals, women’s shelters and other charities increasingly under attack by progressive activists; laws which defend women and unborn children victimized by the abortion industry.

If the last two presidential election cycles have made anything clear, it is this: The GOP cannot afford to settle for a “truce” strategy on social issues, surrendering to Democrats the power to define the cultural narrative. This repeatedly has proven to be electoral suicide. If Republicans are to capitalize on the Democrats’ growing weakness, they must campaign unapologetically as conservatives, as President Trump did in 2016, or else resign themselves to eventual defeat.

Frank Cannon is the president of American Principles Project and can be followed on Twitter at @frankcannonAPP. Paul Dupont is communications director for American Principles Project.