Election Memo: The RINOs Will Take Their Revenge

Published November 5, 2018

National Review Online

Conservatives love animals, but there is one species they have long wanted to make extinct: the RINO. Not the horned African rhino, mind you, but rather the hoity-toity political RINO — Republicans in Name Only. Movement types have long been enraged by RINOs’ cool attitude toward tax cutting and social conservatism and their willingness to cooperate with, and occasionally vote for, Democrats. Hunting RINO officeholders during primary season has been the Club for Growth’s primary mission for years, and together with activist muscle the group has successfully pushed the party to the right.

It turns out, however, that poaching RINO legislators is not enough to drive RINOs to extinction. Conservatives have long thought that RINOs’ native environment was the lobby room and the fundraising circuit — that they drew their sustenance from the insiders, not the folks back home. But it turns out that the RINOs were living off the land the whole time, the McMansion-land of upper-income suburbia. Millions of voters there were in fact RINOs too, and picking off their representatives did not do a thing to change their minds about the issues. They like “go slow” Republicanism and do not believe that things in America are bad enough on any level to warrant radical, significant change.

RINO voters have long preferred candidates such as Bob Dole, the two George Bushes, John McCain, and Mitt Romney. So long as folks like these led the party, RINOs were happy to keep the “R” in their names even as they increasingly battled the GOP’s more conservative elements. But Trump changed all that.

Trump’s message was that America was a sinking ship, one that needed a radical change of course, and fast. Add his volatile and voluble personality to the mix and you can see why RINOs did not want to take a cruise on the SS GOP with Trump as its captain. But Trump won despite their defection.

Tuesday, however, is going to be the RINOs’ revenge. Romney-loving RINOs are coming out their preserves with fire in their hearts and a gleam in their eyes. They are decked out in hunting gear of their own, and their prey is the Trump-backing, change-seeking GOP. They might not be able to win primaries anymore, but in league with their new friends, the Democrats, they are eager to take down some big game of their own. And they will.

The new Democrat–RINO alliance is going to retake the House, sweep the GOP out of governor’s mansions in most purple states, and end the careers of hundreds of suburban state legislators. In the Senate, it will most likely hold Republicans to a one- or two-seat gain despite an incredibly favorable map — and may even win the Democrats a seat. Come Wednesday, the RINOs will mount their trophies on their walls and resolve to continue the hunt until the big game is caught: the orange-plumed woodpecker from Queens.

My Predictions

Senate Breakdown

 52 Republicans, 48 Democrats (including two independents who caucus with the Democrats).

 States switching to the Democrats: NV, AZ.

 States switching to the Republicans: ND, MO, IN.

House Breakdown

 209 Republicans, 226 Democrats. This is a gain of 32 seats for the Democrats; a plausible range is that they will gain 25 to 40. Anywhere in that range, Republicans will lose control of the chamber.

 Sixteen seats are certain to switch to the Democrats: CA-49, AZ-2, CO-6, KS-3, MN-2, MN-3, IA-1, IL-6, MI-11, FL-27, VA-10, PA-5, PA-6, PA-7, NJ-2, NJ-11.

 Seven more are likely to switch to the Democrats: WA-8, CA-10, CA-45, PA-17, NJ-7, NY-19, TX-32.

 Twenty-six more are potential Democratic pickups: CA-25, CA-39, CA-48, UT-4, TX-7, KS-2, IA-3, IL-13, IL-14, MI-8, OH-12, GA-6, GA-7, FL-15, FL-26, NC-9, NC-13, VA-2, VA-5, VA-7, PA-1, NJ-3, NY-11, NY-22, ME-2, AK-AL.

 One seat is certain to switch to the Republicans: MN-8.

 Two more are potential Republican pickups: MN-1, NV-3.

Governors Breakdown

 25 Republicans, 25 Democrats. This is a gain of nine governorships for the Democrats.

 States switching to the Democrats: FL, OH, NV, MI, NM, ME, IL, WI, IA, OH.

 State switching to the Republicans (from an independent): AK.


Safari in RINO Country

You might find it odd that I am blaming the RINOs for the impending Republican defeat. After all, most polls show that 80–90 percent of Republicans approve of Trump’s job performance and north of 90 percent of Republicans plan to vote for Republican candidates on Tuesday. But these data mask the broader fact that millions of people who used to vote Republican no longer plan to do so, and that they are largely the sort of people whom conservatives consider RINOs.

Trump’s victory occurred because millions of Obama voters, largely in the blue-collar Midwest and similar areas, offset the loss of millions of Romney supporters who cast votes for Clinton. The new Trump voters carried the day because they were concentrated in swing states where a small movement could tip key electoral votes. The former Romney voters, on the other hand, tended to be spread out across the country, often in safe red or blue states.

But at the congressional level those lost Romney RINOs matter. The GOP is starting with a 23-seat majority in the House, but it holds 25 seats in districts that Clinton won. Many of those seats had been carried by Romney four years earlier, some by as many as 21 points. These were areas that were so red no one ever thought they could flip. But flip they did.

These are places where people are educated and well-off, such as the west side of Houston, home to the ritzy Galleria and tony, old-school River Oaks. Once represented by George H. W. Bush and Bill Archer, TX-7 went from a 21-point Romney district to a one-point Clinton one. Suburban Chicago’s IL-6 had a 15-point swing, from +8 for Romney to +7 for Clinton. Southern California has four similar seats, all of which went from voting for Romney by four to twelve points to backing Clinton by two to nine. All of these seats are being seriously contested, and the Republican is behind in nearly all of them.

GOP House leaders had thought the large tax cut would bring these voters home. But that was always folly. Political analyst Lee Drutman found that “Romney to Clinton voters were predominantly liberal on the issues” — in other words, RINOs. They were not as liberal as regular Democrats, but they were much closer to Democrats on moral issues, immigration, attitudes toward Muslims, and even concerns about economic inequality than they were to regular Republicans. Within the GOP, their ideological profile looks closest to that of John Kasich backers. ’Nuff said.

But What about the TIGRs?

Trump made up for the loss of the RINOs by recruiting his own brand of beast, the TIGR. That’s my all-too-cute acronym to describe the blue-collar people who switched parties: Trump Is Great Republicans. TIGRs are not real Republicans either; they strongly disagree with movement conservatism on business tax cuts, entitlement cuts, and many social issues. But they do agree with them on questions like restricting immigration and fighting Muslim terrorists, and they share the movement conservative’s pride in America. Trump’s slogan, Make America Great Again, encapsulates these beliefs, and they voted for Republicans in 2016 largely because of Trump’s efforts.

They had also voted Republican in 2010 in opposition to President Obama’s first two years in office. The Tea Party took most of the credit for that year’s wave, but in state after state the voters who elected congresspersons, state legislators, and governors were TIGRs. Wisconsin’s Scott Walker is a prime example of this. Look at the geographic distribution of his vote in 2010 and the subsequent recall, and you’ll see that he does nearly as well as Trump in the blue-collar Democratic areas that enabled Trump to carry the state. Walker also kept the RINOs, giving him comfortable six-point wins in 2010 and 2014.

TIGRs don’t live near RINOs, so their votes can’t help to retain the seats in the suburbs. But the GOP could have made a full-court press on them, trying to transfer their loyalty from Trump to the party generally. Had they done this, they could have gained a number of House seats from Democrats representing Obama-Trump districts while also protecting the eleven Republicans in such seats.

Unfortunately, they did not. Only one Democratic-held Obama-Trump seat looks likely to flip, while Republicans are guaranteed to lose three and could lose another three. No Democrat holding a Romney-Trump seat is even facing a significant challenge

This failure could even prevent Republicans from gaining any Senate seats. All of the close Senate seats have large numbers of TIGRs, especially the Democratic-held seats in Missouri, Indiana, and Montana. If the Democrats hold any of these seats, it will be because RINOs in the suburbs joined with Democrats and just enough TIGRs in the hinterlands to hold off the GOP challenger.

Mapping the Hunt in the House

Democrats know their prey, so they are looking to bag their trophies in places where RINOs or TIGRs are most numerous. We can divide the Democratic House targets into four rough groups armed with this knowledge. They are stacked like a pyramid, with the RINO-heavy seats at the base. The better the Dems do at each level and the higher up the pyramid they go, the better their election night will be, so you can use this taxonomy to track partisan performance.

Start with the base, the 25 Republican-held House seats that Clinton carried. Eleven of them are in my “certain to switch” category and another five are in my “likely to switch” group. Six more are in the “possible to switch” category, leaving only three (Will Hurd, TX-23; John Katko, NY-24; David Valadao, CA-21) likely to return. I’m guessing that 19 of these 25 turn blue on Tuesday.

The TIGR seats, those that moved from Obama to Trump, are next on the list. Three of the eleven GOP-held TIGR seats are in my “certain to flip” group, another is in the likely to flip section, and four more are in the possible to flip category. Only three New Yorkers — Elise Stefanik, NY-21; Peter King, NY-2; and Lee Zeldin, NY-1 — look like safe bets to return. I’m guessing that a total of six of these seats are lost, and the GOP will only gain two TIGR seats (MN-1 and MN-8) in return.

Add the two together and Democrats are already at +23. That means Speaker Pelosi, and we haven’t touched pure red country yet.

The next step up for Democrats are districts that Trump won but with less than 50 percent of the vote. Many of these are RINO-heavy suburbs such as Buckhead in suburban Atlanta (GA-6) or Bloomfield Hills in suburban Detroit (MI-11). Two of these seats are certain to switch, one is likely to turn, and another six could swing left. I think a total of six will fall, bringing the Democrats to +29.

Finally, we have the seats that Trump took with between 50 and 60 percent of the vote. Some of these places are on the list because of underlying demographic changes, such as the RINO-heavy VA-7 and OH-12. Others are here because of the extreme weakness of the GOP candidate (I’m looking at you, Bigfoot-erotica-author Denver Riggleman in VA-5). I think the Democrats win three of the nine seats in this group, which brings them to +32.

Governor and Senate Outlooks

The RINO and TIGR factors explain virtually all of my picks in the governor’s races, too. Republican candidates currently trail in every state Trump captured from Obama (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa). In each case, the Republican isn’t picking up many of the RINOs who switched to Clinton and isn’t retaining enough of the TIGRs who switched to Trump. It’s possible one or two could pull off a narrow win, but I am not counting on it.

Republicans also trail, badly in some cases, in three deep-blue states where they currently hold the governorship: Maine, New Mexico, and Illinois. The Maine and New Mexico governors are leaving — meaning their potential replacements need to win a blue state with no incumbency advantage — while incumbent Illinois governor Bruce Rauner is deeply unpopular. Four other blue-state Republican incumbents look poised to win, however: those in New Hampshire, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Vermont, although the New Hampshire race could surprise.

That leaves Alaska, where Republicans lead in a bid to capture an independent-held chair, and Nevada, where the son of former governor and Reagan confidant Paul Laxalt, Adam Laxalt, is locked in a tight race. I think the partisan leans of the states will dictate the outcomes, which means Republicans win Alaska and narrowly lose Nevada.

The Senate seats differ slightly from the governors’ chairs because five look to be excruciatingly close. I join most analysts in thinking Republicans will retain Texas and Tennessee while regaining North Dakota handily. Democrat Joe Manchin looks set to survive in West Virginia, and Jon Tester is likely to win a third term without ever once having received a majority of the vote (is that a record?). That brings us to the five close seats which I address in detail.

Nevada: My pick here will probably surprise some readers. After all, GOP incumbent Dean Heller leads in the RealClearPolitics polling average. I nonetheless think he will narrowly lose.

First, Nevada polling consistently overstates Republican strength and has since 2010. The RealClearaverage, for example, had Trump ahead, but he lost by 2.4 percentage points. Heller’s current lead is only 1.4 points, less than the average difference between the polling and final result over the past four elections.

Second, the early vote points to a narrow Democratic win. Democrats have cast 22,000 more ballotsthan Republicans, which historically is in line with a Democratic win unless independents break sharply to Heller. Heller would need to beat Rosen by more than 15 points among independents to eke out a narrow win among the early ballots, and that seems highly unlikely.

Third, the polls show he’s not getting a high enough share of the white vote to prevail absent a huge dropoff in Latino voting, like what occurred in 2014. Assuming Latinos vote — and the early vote totals suggest they are — whites will constitute only about 63 percent of the total electorate. Poll averages have Heller getting a shade over 55 percent of the white vote, which when combined with a 30 percent share of the non-white still leaves him short of 46 percent (what he’ll likely need to win with third-party votes in the mix). Close, but no cigar.

Arizona: This race will likely be very close, with whoever wins clinging to a margin of two points or less. I nevertheless think that person is a bit likelier to be Kyrsten Sinema because of the underlying early vote and polling dynamics.

Republicans look to be in good shape on the face of the early-voting returns. Statewide figures show a huge turnout, with nearly as many votes already cast as were cast in total in 2014. Republican registrants constitute 41.8 percent of that total, a nearly eight-point lead over the Democrats. But this lead is smaller than they normally have in early voting; in 2014, Republicans led Democrats by over eleven points. This suggests a slightly higher level of enthusiasm for Sinema than for her opponent, Martha McSally.

The underlying polling demographics also point to a narrow Sinema win. As elsewhere, Republicans must win the white vote by large margins to offset the Democratic advantage among non-whites. The polls are remarkably consistent in showing McSally winning the white vote with between 50 and 53 percent. But whites are only 75 percent of the electorate; even if she gets that up to 55 percent, she would need to get a third of the non-white vote to obtain the 49 percent she will need for a narrow win. Trump and McCain both did that, so it is possible, but only one poll so far shows McSally equaling their achievement.

Phoenix and its suburbs are the key to Arizona. No Democrat has won Phoenix’s Maricopa County, which will cast about 60 percent of the total votes, in a contested race this decade. McSally will lose if Sinema wins there by more than one point, as the polls currently show. If McSally does prevail there, however, she could come through on the rural and exurban vote in Yavapai, Pinal, Mohave, and Cochise counties.

Missouri: This will be another very close race. The two recent polls available show Democrat Claire McCaskill winning independents and carrying a slightly larger share of Democrats than Hawley is of Republicans. Applying those percentages to the state’s estimated shares of Republicans, Democrats, and independents gives McCaskill 49 to 50 percent. But the Fox poll shows Hawley winning only 79 percent of Trump voters. Since nationwide polls show that that total in most races is more like 89 percent, should Hawley get closer to the national average he gets close to 52 percent. In the end, I am going with Hawley because Missouri has turned into a very Republican state, and even McCaskill’s ability to get RINO and TIGR votes might not be enough to offset the partisan lean.

Indiana: Another very close race whose outcome hinges on small differences in voting patterns. Indiana’s Senate polls show Donnelly winning more Republicans than Braun is winning Democrats and carrying the independents. That’s the RINO and TIGR effect — keeping Romney-Clinton voters and winning back some Obama-Trump voters. But Indiana remains a very Republican state, and Donnelly barely received a majority of the vote in 2012 running against a much weaker candidate. There is again a libertarian on the ballot who will siphon off some votes, and it is very hard for me to see Donnelly recapturing a majority in the current environment.

Braun will win so long as he can limit Donnelly to less than a ten-point margin among independents. Donnelly won by only eleven among independents in 2012, so I think that’s quite possible. I also note that the polls significantly underestimated Republican strength here in 2016, giving eventual Senate winner Todd Young only a 0.7-point lead when he actually prevailed by 9.7 points. I’m betting that happens again, turning what appears to be a narrow Donnelly advantage into a narrow Braun win.

Florida: This will also be a very close race, but all the signs favor Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson. The Republican nominee, Governor Rick Scott, is doing better than any other nominee in holding the GOP vote, but he is not winning independents by enough to put him over the top. Looking at this from another angle, race and ethnicity, he is not winning a large enough share of the white vote to offset his deficit among blacks and Latinos. Either way I run the numbers, Nelson wins — by a whisker looking at the partisan breaks and 2.6 points looking at the race and ethnic breaks. Scott can win, but he will need to do slightly better among white and Latino independents to do so.

How Could I Be Wrong? The ‘Known Unknowns’

Former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld made this concept briefly famous. It refers to factors that we know can affect a result, but whose effect we cannot know in advance. Politics has a lot of known unknowns, and in addition to the ones I mention above there are a few basic ones to watch.

Turnout is the one most often talked about. Partisans are so tilted in their respective parties’ direction that even a small hike in their relative share of the vote can tilt a very close race. Polling error is another. We know it exists, but we can’t know its direction or extent until after the fact. The way undecideds break is a third: We think they break against incumbents, but that doesn’t always happen. Again, a late break can decide a very close race, but we won’t know until we know.

There is one obscure known unknown that could give hope to Republicans. Polls in the last week show a very curious thing: GOP candidates are running behind Trump’s job approval almost everywhere. So that means 2 or 3 percent of the total electorate, more than enough to shift close races, are voters who approve of Trump and want Republicans to control the House or Senate but have not yet decided to back the specific Republican on the ballot in front of them. Why? We don’t know, but if they revert to their priors and back the Republican, quite a few people who look like narrow losers will instead be narrow winners.

The Montana Senate race could be the biggest example of this potential election-night surprise. Last week’s Gravis poll found Trump with a 58 percent job approval rating, including 82 percent among Republicans. Republican Senate nominee Matt Rosendale, though, was getting only 45 percent of the vote and only 70 percent among Republicans. An earlier poll from Montana State University in Billings found Trump with 49 percent job approval but Rosendale with only 38 percent of the vote. Both polls show Rosendale losing over 20 percent of voters who approve of Trump, easily the biggest rate of defection in the country outside of West Virginia, where Democrat Joe Manchin is popular among Trump voters. If he halves that to a 10 percent defection rate on Tuesday, which is still high by national standards, then the Montana race will be too close to call.

Looking to the Future: RINOs and TIGRs and Elephants, Oh My!

Republicans of all stripes will have to take stock of their priors after Election Day. Whether you are a RINO, a TIGR, a longtime Republican who joins the TIGRs in loving the current president, a movement conservative, or a business conservative, you are in the minority. If you are uncomfortable with that — or, in the case of the RINOs, if you are uncomfortable giving real power to your newfound friends on the left — there’s only one way out. You must all hang together or you will all hang separately.

The RINO/business-conservative-led GOP of 2008 and 2012 cannot win a majority. Mitt Romney’s defeat demonstrates this clearly; despite his appeal to moderate suburbanites, there weren’t enough base Republicans plus RINOs and business conservatives to win the Electoral College. That coalition was also unstable, as the intra-party battles of 2010 to 2016 made painfully clear. That coalition was at war with itself and was losing strength every four years to demographic change, as older whites passed on and younger non-whites started voting. Reviving that is not the way to victory.

A movement-conservative-dominated party is also not a majority. The defeats of tea-party Senate nominees such as Joe Miller in Alaska and Ken Buck in Colorado showed this. Movement types don’t want to hear this, but in any state that is not deep red there are enough moderates and RINOs who won’t back a movement nominee to shift the state leftward. Ted Cruz’s rallying call in 2016, that there were millions of disenchanted conservatives who never voted, just waiting for a true conservative to wake them from their slumber, was as incorrect then as it had been was peddled by conservatives prior to Barry Goldwater’s 1964 debacle.

Trump fans must also realize that the president’s TIGRs have not created a majority either. The Trump-TIGR GOP is electorally more efficient than the RINO/business-conservative coalition was, because the voters it attracts are concentrated in large Midwestern states. But Tuesday’s results will confirm what polls and the 2016 popular vote showed: Trump has simply created a new minority coalition.

That coalition could win the presidency again, should the Democrats pick someone too far left or too personally flawed to beat Trump. That’s how Trump won in 2016, by getting enough people who disliked both nominees to choose “Never Hillary” over “Never Trump.” But that victory would again almost certainly be accompanied by a popular-vote defeat, probably a bit larger than in 2016 because of demographic change. In a modern democracy, a minority cannot long rule over a majority without terrible consequences to the country.

Winston Churchill is reputed to have remarked that Americans will always do the right thing, but only after they have exhausted all the alternatives. So I think it is with the Republican party. The only opportunity to create a durable majority that will prevent decades of Democratic rule is to combine all the animals in one menagerie: RINOs and TIGRs and the traditional Republican elephants.

One could say this is impossible, that the differences among chardonnay-sipping Californians, Bud-slurping Wisconsinites, Scotch-swilling businessmen, and teetotaling Baptists are too great to bridge. But I know it can be done because it has been done, by Ronald Wilson Reagan.

Look at polls or maps from Reagan’s presidency and you will find all four groups living in harmony with one another. You will also find Reagan doing much better with Mexican and Asian immigrants than today’s GOP does. That coalition only held for twelve years before Democrats began to poach our animals off the preserve, but that coalition saved America and the world.

Reagan inspired millions with his oratory, but the secret to his success is found in one short paragraph. It is found on his gravestone because it is his epitaph, and I believe he chose it because it encapsulates his core principles. It reads, “I know in my heart that man is good, that what is right will eventually triumph, and there is purpose and worth to each and every life.”

The last clause is the most important. The GOP has been a minority for 86 years. And it will remain so as long as the GOP implicitly tells Americans that one group is better than another, whether that group is businesspeople, whites, evangelical Christians, or liberty-lovers. Americans intrinsically believe that there is worth and purpose in each and every life, and they want a government that believes that too.

So take heart. Republicans may take a beating on Tuesday, but they have taken worse beatings before and bounced back. So long as there is life there is hope. And to steal the words of one of our great adversaries, “the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”

— Mr. Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, an editor at UnHerd.com, and the author of The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism.

Most Read

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Sign up to receive EPPC's biweekly e-newsletter of selected publications, news, and events.

Upcoming Event |

The Promise and Peril of Civic Renewal: Richard John Neuhaus, Peter L. Berger, and “To Empower People”


Your support impacts the debate on critical issues of public policy.

Donate today