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.

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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.”

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