Tuesday night was a real bust for Republicans. Democrats held the governorship in Kentucky and took back the state legislature in Virginia. A referendum to enshrine abortion rights in the Ohio constitution was overwhelmingly adopted. The list goes on.
Yet the GOP would surely take a bad 2023 over a bad 2024, and the party still seems well positioned for the big prize next year: Donald Trump tops Joe Biden in nearly every presidential poll. So, what lessons should Republicans take from these results and what should they do going forward?
We asked a collection of savvy, experienced GOP operatives about what went wrong for Republicans on Tuesday and how the party can fix it. They offered up a range of solutions, including putting more women on the ballot and making sure abortion laws include exceptions for rape and incest. Some saw a need for the party to reflect and retrench. Others think the GOP needs to go on offense and push back on the Democrats’ efforts to paint them as extremist.
But the proverbial elephant in the GOP room remains former President Donald Trump, who both animates and undermines his party’s electoral chances. As one respondent put it, “Donald Trump is at once the cause of and solution to all of the party’s problems.”
‘We must do more as a party to appeal to women and mothers.’
BY HOLLY HARRIS
Holly Harris is a former GOP strategist from Kentucky who founded the Network, an organization that supports lawmakers working on solutions to America’s greatest challenges.
One word: Women.
We must do more as a party to appeal to women and mothers. That means putting women in the war rooms, ensuring women are part of crafting policy platforms, and putting credible women on the ballot.
And I’d love to see that result in a pivot from the “red meat rhetoric” to real solutions for American families. From education reform to expanded contraception access to permitting reforms for energy projects, there are so many policy areas that go unexplored when campaigns devolve into culture wars. America has many challenges. Let’s be for policies that fix problems.
‘Republicans need to go on offense’
BY KEN BLACKWELL
Ken Blackwell, chair of the Conservative Action Project, is the former mayor of Cincinnati and Treasurer and Secretary of State of Ohio.
While it is true that Republicans are well positioned for Republicans to win the White House and both houses of Congress in 2024, it is not true that last night was a bad night for the GOP. It was not good either, but rather a combination of some mixed results and the rest, status quo. It shows the GOP needs to paint a clear contrast with bold policies and effective messaging.
Republicans need to go on offense on issues where they lead in the polls, while also facing head-on and rebutting scaremongering from Democrats on issues where the left is wrongly painting the right as extremists. In addition to heavy counter-punching by candidates on the latter, the GOP needs to press the former, such as pushing ballot measures in swing states on issues like border security, fighting the crime wave, and parental rights.
Kentucky teaches us three things. First, it was a status quo election in that state. Reelections are a referendum on the incumbent, and in his response to the tornado, etc., Andy Beshear did enough competent casework for his constituents that enough swing voters decided the incumbent’s performance did not require replacing him. Second, the other incumbent statewide official is a Republican who won with a 21-point margin, and a Republican succeeded Daniel Cameron as attorney general by a 16-point margin, so this is no leftward shift favoring Democrats. One month ago Beshear was +16 in the polls, so Cameron closed strong to close the gap to just four points. Kentucky was about as strong as the GOP could do.
‘Trump remains a polarizing figure’
BY TOM DAVIS
Tom Davis is a former congressmember from Virginia and former chair of the NRCC. He is a distinguished professor at George Mason University.
What went wrong? Abortion became the overriding issue in Virginia, detracting from Governor Youngkin’s popularity and preventing the election from being a referendum on his administration, which would have yielded a more favorable result. That said, Republicans still ran well above the Trump performance line by about 4 points (yielding a swing of +8.) Abortion was also critical in the Kentucky governor’s race and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court race. Secondly, candidates who highlight their ties to Trump, while energizing his supporters, also lower their ceiling for prospective votes. Trump remains a polarizing figure who could win in 2024 against a weakened Joe Biden, but who limits potential Republican congressional performance in suburban and urban neighborhoods, thus limiting potential gains.
‘GOP fortunes are increasingly tied to low propensity voters’
BY LIAM DONOVAN
Liam Donovan is a principal at Bracewell LLP and a former National Republican Senatorial Committee aide.
While the results largely lined up with survey data, Republicans failed to live up to outsized expectations predicated on expanding from their 2021 success, which now registers as a blip in retrospect. The unmistakable pattern of the Trump era is that of Democrats becoming the party that excels in low turnout elections, while GOP fortunes are increasingly tied to low propensity voters who only tune into national elections.
What this off-year success can’t assuage — and at some level serves to exacerbate — is the creeping sense that, despite a favorable environment and galvanizing issue matrix, the growing public malaise surrounding President Biden leaves him singularly vulnerable to defeat. For the time being, voters are telling pollsters that they’d even prefer former President Trump, despite his own immense baggage and unpopularity. Age, inflation, and disaffection among key voter groups all have taken their toll, and an overwhelming share of Democrats profess to want someone new as their nominee, even if they can’t agree who that should be.
As we hurtle toward the primary season, Republicans continue to wrestle with the same paradox that has gripped them since that fateful ride down the escalator — Donald Trump is at once the cause of and solution to all of the party’s problems. If he behaves himself, acts rationally, and keeps the attention on Biden and his myriad issues, Trump could maintain his current advantage, turning out unlikely voters without turning off the persuadable habitual voters who decide elections. Of course, that’s not who Donald Trump is, and a campaign punctuated by high-profile courtroom drama will place him front and center in voters’ lives in a way we haven’t experienced in nearly three years. So long as Trump is the presumptive nominee, no lead is safe, even as Biden’s manifest weakness makes the race a true toss-up. If they’re not prepared to move on from the former president — and the base is clearly inclined to double down — Republicans have to harness Trump’s red state strength and capitalize on a favorable Senate map, where wins in West Virginia, Montana and Ohio would ensure control of at least one lever of power for years to come.
‘We are the angry party of nothing’
BY ALEX CASTELLANOS
Alex Castellanos is a Republican consultant and co-founder of Purple Strategies.
I would not say the 2023 elections were “deeply disappointing” for the Republican Party — because we don’t have a Republican Party. That is disappointing. We are the party of nothing. At best, we believe our conservative and populist principles are good only for saying “No” to wacky Democrat elitism and motivating our base. But as far as leading the entire country, we bow our heads apologetically: Republicans are the party of the past and have nothing to say about today.
We could be the party of the future, the party advancing an open economy, that grows bottom-up, naturally and organically — and provides equal economic opportunity to everyone, regardless of race, gender, or ethnicity. After all, the Democrat’s old, top-down political, and artificial economic management is #SoDiscriminatory, #SoEstablishment and #SoYesterday. We could be the party of equal opportunity in education and open schools, where all parents, not just wealthy ones, get to pick the best school for their kids. We could be the party of an open, modern health care system, where patients and doctors decide what kind and how much health care we get. We could be the party of strength, to keep Americans safe everywhere. We could be the party that says freedom, not rule by our ancient, privileged class, is always a new idea.
It would be nice to have a Republican Party that young people, women, and new Americans actually want to join again, not because we compromise our principles but because we explain how they help people. But no. We are the angry party of nothing. So when an issue like abortion comes along, we are completely and entirely defined by it. And we become small, angry people who are not pro-life on the issue’s merits, but because Republicans hate women.
America has had enough of the Democrat’s inflation, absent border, crime, decaying cities, woke corruption of our culture and destruction of our children. Republicans are right to oppose #YesterdaysDemocrats. But we can’t beat them unless we are #TomorrowsRepublicans.
‘The Reagan Republican Party that once existed is long gone’
BY SARAH LONGWELL
Sarah Longwell is publisher of The Bulwark and the president and CEO of Longwell Partners.
Republican elected officials have passed up every opportunity to get off the crazy train of Trumpian authoritarianism. Instead, they’ve gone all in, purging the party of dissenting voices — Liz Cheney, Adam Kinzinger, Mitt Romney — and elevating the most craven Trump-enablers — Elise Stefanik, Kevin McCarthy. Even worse, those who previously stood against Trump’s lawlessness have pledged to support him in 2024 — Peter Meijer, Nikki Haley.
This is a function of what I call the Republican Triangle of Doom: the toxic and symbiotic relationship that exists between Republican base voters, elected officials, and the conservative infotainment media. Each of these feed off of one another, pushing the party further and further down the rabbit hole. The result has been the total capture of the people and institutions that make up the conservative movement.
One thing is certain: They aren’t going back. The Reagan Republican Party that once existed is long gone, and it isn’t going to reform itself. The only thing that can check the authoritarian movement and save our democracy is sustained electoral defeat at the ballot box. By running moderate, centrist candidates, Democrats and the small rump of pro-democracy Republicans must beat MAGA. And we must do it for as long as it takes for the lesson to sink in.
‘Most voters … want exceptions for rape and incest’
BY SCOTT JENNINGS
Scott Jennings is a longtime Republican adviser and a senior CNN political commentator. He lives in Prospect, KY.
Focusing on the Kentucky governor’s race, there are three big issues that stand out: money, abortion and Trump.
Democrats had a massive fundraising advantage which, when paired with Gov. Beshear’s incumbency, proved insurmountable. Across the board in the Trump era, Democrats are giving to any candidate and any cause, especially where abortion is being litigated on the ballot.
On abortion, it’s quite apparent that most voters, regardless of their position on the overall limits, want exceptions for rape and incest. Daniel Cameron, the Republican nominee, defended Kentucky’s law that lacks those exceptions and was crucified for it by Beshear, who used the issue to motivate Democratic voters and also lock Cameron out of many suburban Republican moderates who appear to have voted Republican elsewhere on the ticket.
Finally, we’ve once again learned about the limits of Trump. His endorsement of Cameron delivered him the GOP primary nomination, but wasn’t enough to overcome Beshear in the general.
There are obviously a cohort of voters who A) dislike Biden, B) are deeply unhappy with his policies and the direction of the country, and C) will keep voting Democrat because Trump is a deal breaker for them. They turned out last November for Democrats and again this year. College-educated moderates, independents and women are trouble spots for the Republicans on this front. Kentucky Secretary of State Mike Adams, the least Trumpy candidate on the Kentucky ballot, received the most votes. Cameron leaned heavily into his Trump affiliation; while nationalizing the race helped close the gap in October, it obviously poisoned the well in Kentucky’s suburbs, too.
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