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
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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.


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.

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