AGAINST THE GRAIN

The Republican Party’s Identity Crisis

No one knows what the conservative movement stands for anymore. Politicos on both the Right and the Left are struggling to get a bead on it to better shape their campaigns in the midterms.

Republican House candidate Karen Handel of Georgia
AP Photo/David Goldman
Josh Kraushaar
Add to Briefcase
Josh Kraushaar
April 23, 2017, 6 a.m.

Most of the cov­er­age sur­round­ing Geor­gia’s closely watched spe­cial elec­tion has fo­cused on who will win the highly com­pet­it­ive con­test. But the race has also ex­posed a broad­er, more con­found­ing ques­tion that’s dog­ging Re­pub­lic­ans these days: What does it mean to be a con­ser­vat­ive Re­pub­lic­an in the age of Trump?

The newly min­ted GOP nom­in­ee, Kar­en Han­del, kept more dis­tance from Pres­id­ent Trump than her Re­pub­lic­an rivals did, but she boas­ted a more con­ser­vat­ive re­cord than any of the Re­pub­lic­ans in the race. She cut off grants to Planned Par­ent­hood in her role as a Susan G. Ko­men for the Cure of­fi­cial—a de­cision that led to her ouster from the or­gan­iz­a­tion—mak­ing her a cham­pi­on of so­cial con­ser­vat­ives. She touts her im­ple­ment­a­tion of a voter ID law while she was Geor­gia’s sec­ret­ary of state. There aren’t many is­sues where she di­verges from con­ser­vat­ive or­tho­doxy, even as the sub­urb­an At­lanta dis­trict has been drift­ing in a Demo­crat­ic dir­ec­tion.

Trump’s un­ortho­dox views have scrambled the defin­i­tion of con­ser­vat­ism, and ut­terly con­fused Re­pub­lic­ans, Demo­crats, and pun­dits alike. In as­sess­ing Han­del’s pro­spects in the up­com­ing run­off, one CNN com­ment­at­or dubbed her a “coun­try-club Re­pub­lic­an” while oth­er talk­ing heads placed her firmly in the es­tab­lish­ment camp. Yes, she has plenty of elect­ive ex­per­i­ence as a former county ex­ec­ut­ive, sec­ret­ary of state, and failed Sen­ate and gubernat­ori­al can­did­ate. The an­ti­tax Club for Growth slammed her for spend­ing lav­ishly when she was a statewide of­fi­cial. But the main reas­on she’s be­ing seen as a prag­mat­ist is be­cause she’s had ac­tu­al gov­ern­ing ex­per­i­ence. These days, be­ing an out­spoken out­sider es­tab­lishes a con­ser­vat­ive’s cred­ib­il­ity as much as be­ing a suc­cess­ful in­sider.

Re­pub­lic­ans don’t have a much bet­ter feel for the fu­ture of their party either, par­tic­u­larly in this polit­ic­ally evolving dis­trict that views the pres­id­ent skep­tic­ally. This is why the party is fo­cused on mak­ing the race about House Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi. Trump’s Twit­ter feed has tar­geted the spe­cial elec­tion a lot, and he be­lieves that his in­volve­ment in the race is help­ing Re­pub­lic­ans. Han­del, the day after se­cur­ing a spot in the run­off, told CNN she’d wel­come the pres­id­ent’s sup­port in the dis­trict—a shift from her earli­er dis­play of in­de­pend­ence.

But the two Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates with dir­ect ties to Trump per­formed dis­mally. One mid-level Trump cam­paign staffer (Bruce LeV­ell) won a measly 455 votes. An­oth­er tea-party act­iv­ist who cham­pioned Trump (Amy Kre­mer) fin­ished with 0.2 per­cent in the primary. A lead­ing con­tender who po­si­tioned him­self as an out­sider (Dan Moody) lagged be­hind ex­pect­a­tions, fin­ish­ing in fourth place. The no­tion that Trump’s brand of Re­pub­lic­an­ism won the day was badly un­der­mined by the elec­tion res­ults.

Mean­while, Demo­crats are still try­ing to fig­ure out their most ef­fect­ive lines of at­tack against Han­del. Do they hit her for be­ing un­abashedly an­ti­abor­tion, even as she shares the same views on the is­sue as the oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans who have held this seat for dec­ades? Or do they con­nect her with Trump, even though she’s nev­er been close with the pres­id­ent? So far, the Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee is smartly cri­ti­ciz­ing her on non-ideo­lo­gic­al grounds, por­tray­ing her in a new ad as “an­oth­er ca­reer politi­cian tak­ing us for a ride.” This at­tack echoes the con­ser­vat­ive Club for Growth cri­ti­cism that Han­del was “liv­ing the high life” by spend­ing ir­re­spons­ibly dur­ing her time in of­fice. Demo­crats may be pub­licly por­tray­ing Han­del as an ex­trem­ist to fire up their base, but their tar­geted mes­saging in­dic­ates they re­cog­nize the fu­til­ity of de­fin­ing her in ideo­lo­gic­al terms in a dis­trict where polit­ic­al per­cep­tions are rap­idly shift­ing.

This Re­pub­lic­an iden­tity crisis is cre­at­ing a double whammy for the party: Its lack of le­gis­lat­ive ac­com­plish­ments des­pite uni­fied con­trol of gov­ern­ment is de­mor­al­iz­ing to tra­di­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an voters, who aren’t nearly as fired up to vote as they were dur­ing Barack Obama’s pres­id­ency. And Trump’s par­tial aban­don­ment of the pop­u­list agenda that fueled his pres­id­en­tial vic­tory is de­mor­al­iz­ing to his own base. Re­pub­lic­ans are feel­ing freer to dis­tance them­selves from Trump lately, and the pres­id­ent doesn’t seem to know what he stands for any­more. It’s why the Geor­gia run­off is likely to re­main close, even though Re­pub­lic­ans nom­in­ated the can­did­ate who matches the mores of the dis­trict.

TRAIL MIX:

In the wake of Demo­crat Jon Os­soff’s sol­id, near-ma­jor­ity show­ing in the Geor­gia spe­cial elec­tion, Demo­crats are re­new­ing their fo­cus on re­cruit­ing can­did­ates in af­flu­ent dis­tricts that tra­di­tion­ally sup­port Re­pub­lic­ans. But as the Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port rat­ings show, Demo­crats would need a near-sweep in these polit­ic­ally evolving dis­tricts to have a good shot at re­tak­ing the House.

Here’s the House math: Demo­crats need to net 24 House seats to win back con­trol of the lower cham­ber. And sev­er­al of their own seats are vul­ner­able to Re­pub­lic­an takeover, rais­ing the ma­gic num­ber a bit. Sweep­ing these sub­urb­an seats isn’t quite as easy as some think. Of the 25 most-af­flu­ent House seats held by a Re­pub­lic­an (based on me­di­an house­hold in­come), Trump won 16 of them in last year’s elec­tion—in­clud­ing six by double-di­gits. Of the 39 Re­pub­lic­an-held seats deemed po­ten­tially com­pet­it­ive by The Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port, 29 are pre­dom­in­antly in urb­an or sub­urb­an ter­rit­ory.

All this means that Demo­crats have a path to win­ning back con­trol of the House, but their mar­gin for er­ror is fairly slim—even with the polit­ic­al winds at their back. It would mean that they would have to de­feat some deeply en­trenched mem­bers (think 11-term Rep. Pete Ses­sions of Texas or 12-term Rep. Rod­ney Frel­inghuysen of New Jer­sey). That’s not im­possible, but it un­der­scores the fact that it will take a per­fect storm to do so—and not just a prom­ising polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment.

What We're Following See More »
19 FACE-TO-FACE MEETINGS
Latest Count: 12 Trump Campaign Staffers Had Contact with Russians
17 hours ago
THE LATEST
AT ISSUE: COMEY FIRING, SESSIONS’S RECUSAL
Mueller Seeks Documents from DOJ
3 days ago
THE LATEST

Special counsel Robert Mueller "is now demanding documents from the department overseeing his investigation." A source tells ABC News that "Mueller's investigators are keen to obtain emails related to the firing of FBI Director James Comey and the earlier decision of Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from the entire matter."

Source:
MULVANEY SAYS PROVISION ISN’T A DEALBREAKER
Trump May Be OK with Dropping Mandate Repeal
3 days ago
THE LATEST

"President Donald Trump would not insist on including repeal of an Obama-era health insurance mandate in a bill intended to enact the biggest overhaul of the tax code since the 1980s, a senior White House aide said on Sunday. The version of tax legislation put forward by Senate Republican leaders would remove a requirement in former President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare law that taxes Americans who decline to buy health insurance."

Source:
FRANKEN JUST THE BEGINNING?
Media Devoting More Resources to Lawmakers’ Sexual Misconduct
3 days ago
THE LATEST

"Members of Congress with histories of mistreating women should be extremely nervous. Major outlets, including CNN, are dedicating substantial newsroom resources to investigating sexual harassment allegations against numerous lawmakers. A Republican source told me he's gotten calls from well-known D.C. reporters who are gathering stories about sleazy members."

Source:
STARTS LEGAL FUND FOR WH STAFF
Trump to Begin Covering His Own Legal Bills
5 days ago
THE DETAILS
×
×

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