Ohio Squeaker Shows GOP Has A Lot To Learn About Winning

Published August 7, 2018

American Greatness

Republicans and Trump supporters needed some good political news, and they got it Tuesday night in the special election for Ohio’s 12th Congressional District.

Republican Troy Balderson’s narrow, one-point win doesn’t mean a “red wave” is swelling. Instead, the results contain both good and troubling news for President Trump and his party. Rather than setting the GOP at ease, these results should serve as a wake-up call to improve their focus on swing voters before the November elections.

These swing voters fall into roughly two camps: those who voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 and Hillary Clinton in 2016—“Romney/Clinton voters”—and those who voted for Barack Obama and Donald Trump—“Obama/Trump voters.” Despite millions of dollars and pro-Balderson ads featuring moderate Republican Governor John Kasich, Balderson on Tuesday ran behind Trump’s already historically low percentages in suburban Delaware and Franklin Counties. Some of this surely is due to Democratic enthusiasm, but the bulk of it is not. Romney/Clinton voters are still dead set against President Trump and what they think he stands for, and they are voting for Democrats to send the party a message.

It might be troubling for many Republican leaders to hear this, but it appears these voters are lost to the GOP in most races this year. The booming economy might be attracting yet another group of voters, those who voted for Romney and either Gary Johnson or Evan McMullin, to stay with the party. But there is no evidence that this, the tax cuts, or any other policy measure yet devised can overcome the antipathy many of the Romney/Clinton voters feel for the president.

Ultimately, enough of these voters have to be won back if a new Republican Party is to become the clear majority party. But that won’t happen this year, and the party needs to plan accordingly.

What should trouble the party more than this drag on their numbers is the apparent weakness Republican candidates have among the Obama/Trump voters. Apart from the urban and suburban parts of Franklin and Delaware county where the Romney/Clinton voters live in high concentrations, Balderson won by huge margins in the district’s other five counties. The problem, however, is that he still ran behind Trump’s share of the vote in all but his home county of Muskingum.  Even worse, turnout in each of these counties—which swung to Trump by up to 29 percent in 2016—was much lower compared to 2016 than it was in Delaware and Franklin. Again, some of that is because of Democratic enthusiasm, but some of it is also due to lack of enthusiasm from Obama/Trump backers.

Trump’s rally on Saturday night surely energized some of these voters, but Trump can’t visit every seat the weekend before the election in the fall. Instead, campaigns in places with large numbers of Obama/Trump voters—which is to say, all of the key Senate seats in play and the majority of the House seats up for grabs—need to build strong messages into their campaigns early to motivate turnout.

That involves understanding what Trump’s appeal to these voters is—and most Republican campaigns still show they just don’t get it.

Restricting immigration is part of that appeal, but only a part. Trump won these voters’ loyalty because he showed them he cared about their lives, their aspirations, and their role in building America. That means talking about a lot of things many Republicans prefer to avoid.

Trade is one of those things. The Obama/Trump voter wants someone fighting for them, and for many that means fighting against unfair trade deals that have put them under enormous economic pressure. A Republican candidate does not have to come out and endorse all of the president’s specific tariffs, but the idea of fighting for American jobs against unfair foreign competition is a winner.

Democrats in swing states understand this. Ohio’s senior U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown has been running ads against unfair Chinese competition for years, and Indiana Senator Joe Donnelly is hitting his Republican challenger for allegedly shipping jobs overseas in his business. With Trump in the White House, however, fighting for American jobs should be an issue Republicans own. But for that to happen, Republicans have to claim the field and too many don’t.

Love of community and country should also be part of this appeal. Too many of these voters live in places that have seen better days, and those who don’t might know life would be much harder for them if they were young again. They love America, but they feel America doesn’t necessarily love them back. “When we make America great again, we’ll make {insert name of area} great again” communicates both the president’s slogan and his theme in aid of the GOP cause.

Republicans shouldn’t be afraid to mix it up a bit on culture, but that doesn’t mean talking incessantly about so-called social issues. Many Obama/Trump voters feel Democrats don’t respect them. “We’re not deplorables, we’re Americans” should be a tagline in at least one GOP ad in every state or seat with lots of these voters. Let the media howl with disdain or argue it’s a dog whistle. That just makes it easier to get these voters riled up, because they know they’re not bad or racist folks.

Put these things together, add them to standard appeals to partisan Republicans, and you can repeat Trump’s stunning margins outside of the major metro areas. That means gaining Senate seats, protecting House incumbents in seats like Iowa’s First District and Maine’s Second, and maybe picking up some of the five open House seats currently held by Democrats but won by President Trump. Do that and we’ll be talking about a blue lagoon, not a blue wave, after the midterms.

The political challenges Republicans face are the same as those faced in almost every developed country. Smart conservative parties and leaders everywhere are trying to surf these waves and include disaffected blue-collar workers in their coalitions even if it means they lose some of their traditional support. Republicans barely dodged a bullet in yesterday’s special election. Time then to load their own weapons, shoot wisely, and fight to win.

Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a think tank in Washington D.C. He is also an editor at UnHerd.com where he writes about populism and politics around the world. He is the co-author, with Dante Scala, of The Four Faces of the Republican Party (Palgrave, 2015) and is the author of The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism (HarperCollins, 2017).

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