The Sweep: Was Trump Good for the GOP?

Plus, the off-off-year gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia.

Campaign Quick Hits

Redistricting Reality Bites: Republicans need only five seats to flip the House of Representatives. And the results of the census are expected to create 10 new congressional seats. Of the 10, eight will most likely be in GOP-controlled states—one in North Carolina, Arizona, and Montana, two in Florida, and three in Texas. With some decent map-drawing that isn’t enjoined by a court, Republicans could pick up five or six seats just for showing up. On the other hand, “six of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump are from states expected to lose congressional seats.” And the former president is taking the opportunity to lobby for those districts to be cannibalized by neighboring Trump-loyal Republicans or even Democrats, resulting in a net loss of six GOP-held seats. If the former president gets his way, it could make reapportionment a wash (or even a net loss) for Republicans and it will also mean six fewer Trump-skeptical voices in the GOP House caucus.

Ohio Is For Lovers: After Sen. Rob Portman announced his retirement in January, the next class of Senate wannabes wasted no time staking out their turf. The first to jump in the race was Josh Mandel, the former state treasurer, who first ran for Senate in 2012 and lost by 6 points to the incumbent, Sherrod Brown. In his first fundraising email he touted that he was “President Trump’s #1 ally in Ohio,” promises to keep “fighting RINO’s and establishment politicians,” and that he is “AGAINST the radical Left’s attempts to destroy our nation.” Most recently, he confirmed on Twitter that “America was founded & grew strong on a bedrock of Judeo-Christian values Flag of United States; Not radical Muslim values.” Some are quick to point out when the word “ambition” is used as a weapon against female candidates (and it is!), but I would wager that it is a word that will be included in every profile of Mandel. The big money on the right, however, has a different horse: This week, former Trump-backers—tech billionaire Peter Thiel and the Mercer family—donated millions to a super PAC supporting Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance in the race.

How to Lose a Governor’s Race in 10 Months: Y’all, I try to keep an unbiased, non-partisan voice in this newsletter but I cannot contain my excitement at the prospect of Matthew McConaughey throwing his 10-gallon hat into the Texas gubernatorial race. On the one hand, we have a perfectly respectable history of sending actors to governors’ mansions (Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, even …  Jesse Ventura!) but this is the post-Trump era and the whole tenor of celebrity-as-politician has changed. Megan Markle, the erstwhile Duchess of Sussex, is supposedly (note: The sourcing on this could charitably be described as ‘thin’) considering a run for presiden t… of America. And Dwayne Johnson said last month that he “would consider a presidential run in the future if that’s what the people wanted.” But back to that guy from the Lincoln car commercials: He has a lot of history with the state. At the moment, it’s hard to say whether his current toe-dipping is more about getting some free publicity for his “We’re Texas” virtual concert and fundraiser on March 21, which will feature lots of other great Texans like Willie Nelson, Don Henley, Gary Clark Jr., Miranda Lambert, Lyle Lovett, George Strait, Leon Bridges, Kelly Clarkson, and Texas-raised Post Malone. Or whether he just wants to find a new use for his famous tagline and run against the “alt-right, alt-right, alt-right.”

2024 Watch—Rubio Edition: While GOP Sens. Tom Cotton, Ted Cruz, and Josh Hawley have been dominating the 2024 headlines, Sen. Marco Rubio is trying to find a lane of his very own. Last week, Rubio made “wait, Republicans are in favor of what now?” headlines when he “voiced his support for a union-organizing drive at an Amazon.com Inc. warehouse in Alabama, accusing the e-commerce giant of waging a culture war that hurts its workers and the economy.” Republicans as the party of union workers fits quite comfortably with the rhetoric of the post-Trump GOP but quite uncomfortably with the decades of right-to-work legislation that Republicans have been pushing at the state level and conservative legal groups that have been chipping away at union rights.  (Some of these folks are literally arguing another case at the Supreme Court next week.)

David, Row Your Boat a Shor

New York Magazine had this incredible interview with David Shor, who worked on the 2012 Obama campaign and does data science at a progressive nonprofit. I recommend reading the whole thing both because he makes an intriguing argument and because the journalist interviewing him is clearly astounded by what he is being told, which fits in perfectly with Shor’s whole point and adds a layer of humor that surely no one intended. 

Shor’s basic thesis is that my “everything is turnout” theory ahead of 2020 was dead wrong. His take: “Trump didn’t exceed expectations by inspiring higher-than-anticipated Republican turnout. He exceeded them mostly through persuasion. A lot of voters changed their minds between 2016 and 2020.” 

There’s nothing I love more than being proven wrong with great data. So I tucked into the rest of the piece with gusto. Here’s his case (and it’s not crazy):

So when you look at self-reported ideology — just asking people, “Do you identify as liberal, moderate, or conservative” — you find that there aren’t very big racial divides. Roughly the same proportion of African American, Hispanic, and white voters identify as conservative. But white voters are polarized on ideology, while nonwhite voters haven’t been. Something like 80 percent of white conservatives vote for Republicans. But historically, Democrats have won nonwhite conservatives, often by very large margins. What happened in 2020 is that nonwhite conservatives voted for Republicans at higher rates; they started voting more like white conservatives.

His organization, OpenLabs, did some post-election surveys specifically digging into the “Hillary 2016- Trump 2020” voters to see what made them tick. And what he found won’t surprise anyone who was paying attention over the summer. A Hillary-Trump voter who had self-described conservative views on crime, policing, and public safety “was more predictive of switching from Clinton to Trump than having conservative views on any other issue-set was.”

But here’s the quiet part that operatives on the left aren’t supposed to say out loud:

So as Democrats have traded non-college-educated voters for college-educated ones, white liberals’ share of voice and clout in the Democratic Party has gone up. And since white voters are sorting on ideology more than nonwhite voters, we’ve ended up in a situation where white liberals are more left wing than Black and Hispanic Democrats on pretty much every issue: taxes, health care, policing, and even on racial issues or various measures of “racial resentment.” So as white liberals increasingly define the party’s image and messaging, that’s going to turn off nonwhite conservative Democrats and push them against us.

His best example of this is on immigration issues during the 2020 campaign. They found that “asking voters whether they lean[ed] toward Biden and Trump, and then emphasizing the Democratic position on immigration, often caused Biden’s share of support among Latino respondents to decline.” This nugget, in particular, seemed to stun Shor’s interviewer.

I tend to agree with Shor’s big picture assessment of the foundational cracks in the Democratic Party’s coalition. And if the Democratic Party were up against a coherent and stable opposition, that could be dicey. But they aren’t. The Republicans have no standard bearer and are struggling to define themselves on some pretty basic issues—see, e.g., my union point in the quick hits. 

And so he loses me when he says “the Trump era has been very good for the Republican Party … [b]ecause if these coalition changes are durable, the GOP has very rosy long-term prospects for dominating America’s federal institutions.” Sure, his side is losing some ground, but so is the other side! That’s what happens when we have a massive and sudden party realignment. It’s only doom and gloom for one side if the other side stays constant,  which it most certainly will not in this case.

But here’s his bottom line message to Democrats: “Most voters are not liberals. If we polarize the electorate on ideology — or if nationally prominent Democrats raise the salience of issues that polarize the electorate on ideology — we’re going to lose a lot of votes.” Fair enough. But—paging Dr. Seuss—ditto Republicans.

From The Stirewalt Files

NORFOLK, Virginia—For those individuals who have developed unhealthy levels of political fascination, the statewide elections in Virginia and New Jersey in the years following presidential elections are the equivalent of problem gamblers with scratch-off lottery tickets. It's not quite the real thing, but it sure gives you that feeling. So let's get scratching!

As you, my fellow political obsessives, already know, there has historically been a decently high correlation between the results of the gubernatorial and legislative elections in the Garden State and the Old Dominion and the outcomes of the following year's midterms. The successes of Republicans Bob McDonnell and Chris Christie in Virginia and New Jersey of 2009 were harbingers of the 2010 anti-Obama wave. The thrashings Democrats Ralph Northam and Phil Murphy delivered in 2017 foretold the blue hue of 2018 and so on.

It matters because Virginia and New Jersey may be blue states, but they have loads and loads of swing voters. No one expects to see Republicans triumph in 2024 in either place—especially Republicans in their current mode of Jacobin populist bloodlust— but given their high concentrations of affluent, educated suburban voters neither place is likely to become a deep-blue woketopia.

The kinds of voters who drive outcomes in both states are the same kinds of voters who get to decide every midterm. Because of the pressure from both primary electorates toward radicalism, neither party spends much time reaching out to these voters until the closing months of general elections. New Jersey and Virginia rank sixth and seventh respectively in the percentage of adults with college degrees. New Jersey has the second-highest median household income. Virginia is 10th.

The value of the two states as predictors is further enhanced by the fact that because the elections are off-off-year affairs, party cohesion and base motivation matters a great deal. The only way Republicans can win nationally is the same as it is in New Jersey and Virginia: Persuade a bare majority of swing voters and then get their core voters to storm the polls.

At least since Bill Clinton's win in 1992, the party of each first-term president has lost the gubernatorial elections in both states in the subsequent years. Even in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Republicans lost both races in 2001. But so far this year, Democrats seem positioned to possibly break the streak after nearly three decades.

New Jersey will be more challenging for the blue team. Republicans seem bound to nominate former state Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, the runner-up in the party's 2017 primary. Ciattarelli is already focused on the general election and targeting incumbent Murphy's greatest weakness: his uneven response to the coronavirus pandemic, especially the high death toll in the state’s nursing homes. No politician in America is more deeply invested in the successful distribution of vaccines and the lifting of pandemic restrictions than Murphy. A good rule of thumb here will be to watch President Biden's national job approval numbers as we approach November. If Biden is experiencing a bounce related to good performance on the virus and the economy, he might carry Murphy with him.

It is here in Virginia, though, that Republicans will have the hardest time. The state party is a shambles and locked an utterly cockamamie system for nominating a candidate. Republicans will hold a—not kidding—drive-thru convention at 37 locations throughout the commonwealth on May 8. This is not really a convention since it does not feature delegates negotiating or even gathering. It will really function like an ultra-low turnout primary in which only those fervent enough to go sit in their cars for hours on a spring Saturday will participate.

Four years ago, Ed Gillespie managed to defeat strident culture warrior Corey Stewart in an ugly primary vote. The kinds of candidates who might appeal to the aforementioned suburban voters will no doubt struggle in this carhop arrangement. What you can expect is a repeat of the scene in 2020 when Rep. Denver Riggleman was, ahem, driven from office by a culture war challenger in a similar arrangement.

Making things worse for Republicans in Virginia is the fact the Democrats seem determined to avoid the kinds of problems inflicting their party in other places. Not only are they having a traditional primary, but popular, moderate former Gov. Terry McAuliffe looks like a shoo-in. He also doesn't have to run with the coronavirus baggage that term-limited incumbent Northam has piled up, especially on schools.

These 2021 contests may not be baccarat at the Casino Royale, but they will scratch the itch until the real thing comes along.