Why Republican Donors and Voters Don’t Get Along

Even as Democrats attack Republicans for catering to the wealthy, the GOP base is distinctly working-class.

BRISTOL, TN - AUGUST 25: DJ and Misty Jennings, Anna Herling and Chris Florkey were among four lucky NASCAR fans to enjoy the IRWIN Tools Night Race at the Bristol Motor Speedway from the M&M'S Racing Best Seats in the House on Saturday, August 25, 2012. As the Official Chocolate of NASCAR, M&M'S is upgrading fans to the ideal viewing locations at four races this season as part of an effort to make race day more fun for NASCAR fans in Bristol, Tennessee.
National Journal
Alex Roarty
Add to Briefcase
Alex Roarty
April 20, 2014, 1 a.m.

It took Dav­id Per­due about 20 seconds of speech­i­fy­ing to ex­pose a ten­sion roil­ing the Re­pub­lic­an Party. Speak­ing in Janu­ary, the former busi­ness ex­ec­ut­ive turned Geor­gia can­did­ate for U.S. Sen­ate asked a group of loc­al Re­pub­lic­ans to parse the re­sumes of his primary foes.

“There’s a high school gradu­ate in this race, OK?” said Per­due, re­fer­ring to his op­pon­ent, former Geor­gia Sec­ret­ary of State Kar­en Han­del. “I’m sorry, these is­sues are so much broad­er, so com­plex. There’s only one can­did­ate in this race who’s ever lived out­side the United States. How can you bring value to a de­bate about the eco­nomy un­less you have any un­der­stand­ing about the free-en­ter­prise sys­tem and what it takes to com­pete in the glob­al eco­nomy?”

The two-pronged swipe eli­cited cries of con­des­cen­sion and elit­ism that even­tu­ally forced Per­due to apo­lo­gize. And it re­vealed a vi­tal real­ity about the state of the Re­pub­lic­an Party as its mem­bers pre­pare to se­lect a stand­ard-bear­er for the 2016 pres­id­en­tial primary: The GOP has long ago shed its ste­reo­type of be­ing the party ca­ter­ing to the wealthy.

These days, the GOP tone and agenda are set by a vot­ing bloc of mostly white, blue-col­lar work­ers whose sens­ib­il­it­ies skew more to­ward NAS­CAR than golf. In a gen­er­al elec­tion, the party’s most re­li­able sup­port­ers are white voters without col­lege de­grees. And they in­creas­ingly con­trol the con­test for the White House nod: In 2008, ac­cord­ing to a tab­u­la­tion of exit-poll data ac­quired by the Na­tion­al Journ­al, blue-col­lar work­ers made up 51 per­cent of all GOP primary voters.

It’s why Per­due’s re­mark was so costly. He wasn’t just mock­ing Han­del; he was mock­ing many of the very voters whose sup­port he wants dur­ing the May primary. Sarah Pal­in, whose anti-elit­ist mes­sage best per­son­i­fies the party’s work­ing-class turn, summed up the feel­ings of many Re­pub­lic­an voters when she cam­paigned for Han­del last month: “There are a lot of good, hard-work­ing Amer­ic­ans who have more com­mon sense in their pinky fin­ger than a lot of those Ivy League pieces of pa­per up on a wall.”

The prob­lem for some Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates like Per­due, the former CEO of Ree­bok and Dol­lar Gen­er­al, is that many of them still hail from the party’s ma­na­geri­al ranks. And that leaves them on un­sure foot­ing as they try to com­mu­nic­ate with a base whose ex­per­i­ences and out­look are fun­da­ment­ally dif­fer­ent than their own.

That ten­sion is one its White House hope­fuls will have to nav­ig­ate care­fully ahead of the 2016 primary.

“Ten years ago a Re­pub­lic­an primary was de­cided by who has the best re­sume,” said Joel McEl­han­non, an At­lanta-based GOP strategist. “Hav­ing broad­er ex­per­i­ence was con­sidered a big plus, but we’ve seen this shift over the last sev­er­al years. There is this pop­u­list strain go­ing through the Re­pub­lic­an primary elect­or­ate, and now it’s less about ex­per­i­ence and it’s more about be­ing an out­sider. It’s less about be­ing qual­i­fied than who is more angry and more likely to ruffle feath­ers.”

The two polit­ic­al parties have es­sen­tially traded places over the last few dec­ades. Demo­crats, who once de­pended heav­ily on blue-col­lar work­ers, have be­come in­creas­ingly the party of white-col­lar work­ers, at least among whites. And as down­scale whites leave the Demo­crat­ic Party, they’ve joined the GOP, whose cul­tur­al val­ues of­ten align with their own.

“Blue-col­lar whites have been mi­grat­ing to the Re­pub­lic­an Party ever since Ron­ald Re­agan called them Re­agan Demo­crats,” said Whit Ayres, a Re­pub­lic­an poll­ster. “It’s a cul­ture that is heav­ily fam­ily based, more small-town and rur­al. It’s very pro-gun, and very pat­ri­ot­ic. We’re talk­ing about a group of folks who see Demo­crat­ic ef­forts at gun con­trol as a cul­tur­al as­sault, an at­tack on their val­ues.”

They played a pivotal role in the 2012 Re­pub­lic­an primary, pro­long­ing Mitt Rom­ney’s as­cend­ancy to the nom­in­a­tion long after most of his back­ers would have liked. In the crit­ic­al early state of South Car­o­lina (where Newt Gin­grich won), voters without a col­lege de­gree made up 53 per­cent of the elect­or­ate, ac­cord­ing to exit polls. In Ohio (where Rom­ney barely held off Rick San­tor­um), they con­sti­tuted 55 per­cent of the elect­or­ate. Iowa’s caucus was 48 per­cent blue-col­lar.

Rom­ney won the nom­in­a­tion des­pite his private-equity back­ground and nu­mer­ous cringe-in­du­cing gaffes — like say­ing his friends were NAS­CAR team own­ers or chal­len­ging Rick Perry to a $10,000 bet. But in 2016, the com­pet­i­tion among po­ten­tial can­did­ates like Rand Paul, Scott Walk­er, Bobby Jin­dal, and Marco Ru­bio will be stiffer for every vote.

And they’re not just com­pet­ing for base voters, either. They’re also try­ing to win over well-heeled donors to fund their cam­paigns. And that’s where the ten­sion between the two sides of the Re­pub­lic­an Party settles in.

“There’s a com­plete lack of un­der­stand­ing of what primary voters are all about,” said one GOP strategist in­volved in a po­ten­tial pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate’s cam­paign, who re­ques­ted an­onym­ity to speak can­didly. “You go around and hang out with big Re­pub­lic­an donors, and if you were to take all their ad­vice on how to win, you’d be screwed bey­ond be­lief, par­tic­u­larly in a primary.”

What We're Following See More »
ISIS INVOLVED
Niger Attack Possible Terrorist Set-Up
10 hours ago
THE LATEST

"An emerging theory among U.S. military investigators is that the Army Special Forces soldiers ambushed in Niger were set up by terrorists, who were tipped off in advance about a meeting in a village sympathetic to local ISIS affiliates...The group of American Green Berets and support soldiers had requested a meeting with elders of a village that was seen as supportive of the Islamic State, and they attended the meeting at around 11 a.m. local time Oct. 4...Such meetings are a routine part of the Green Beret mission, but it wasn't clear whether this meeting was part of the unit's plan."

Source:
TRUMP’S COMMENTS AT ISSUE
Bergdahl’s Sentencing Delayed Until Wednesday
10 hours ago
THE LATEST

"The long-awaited sentencing of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was delayed Monday after a legal battle erupted over the word 'but' in President Donald Trump's most recent remarks about the case. Bergdahl's defense team argued that their client could not get a fair shake from the court because Trump, during a Rose Garden appearance on Oct. 16, at first said he couldn't talk about the case and then added: 'But I think people have heard my comments in the past.'" Trump has called him a traitor and suggested he should be executed.

Source:
PROBE CAME FROM INQUIRY INTO MANAFORT’S FINANCES
Mueller Investigating Tony Podesta and His Firm
19 hours ago
THE LATEST

"Tony Podesta and the Podesta Group are now the subjects of a federal investigation being led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, three sources with knowledge of the matter told NBC News. The probe of Podesta and his Democratic-leaning lobbying firm grew out of Mueller's inquiry into the finances of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort."

Source:
SCHEDULED FOR TUESDAY
House Intel Will Interview Trump Digital Director
21 hours ago
THE LATEST

"President Donald Trump’s campaign digital director, Brad Parscale, will be interviewed Tuesday by the House Intelligence Committee, his first appearance before any of the panels examining the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Mr. Parscale confirmed his scheduled appearance. The Senate committees also probing interference haven’t scheduled time with Mr. Parscale, he said, declining to comment further."

Source:
CONGRESS MAY HAVE DIFFERENT IDEAS
Trump Promises No Changes to 401(k) Plan
21 hours ago
THE LATEST
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login