The first dissonant statement I noticed came from the brain trust of former McConnell aides who reporters often tear down from me to channel their thinking. McConnell advisor Josh Holmes spoke to the New York Times about a recent surge in GOP swapping voters and said the current momentum “pales in comparison to the challenges” Republicans faced after the Barack election Obama faced in 2008. when they “went from absolute irrelevance to a majority of houses within 18 months”.
“If the Republicans can reunite behind conservative rationale and stand up to the liberal reach of the Biden administration, things will change a lot faster than people think,” Holmes offered.
I noticed a few things while designing. The idea that today’s Republican Party will unite behind “conservative principles” is only ridiculous at first glance, especially after McConnell and other party leaders stood by for four years when Trump turned the party into a vapid zombie cult. Whatever the GOP is today, it is not tied to anything resembling any ideology or set of guiding principles that are otherwise conservative. To say otherwise is evidence that McConnell and his brain trust have lost sight of the nature of the entity they are trying to regain power.
Second, Republicans reckon Biden’s “liberal reach” is a unifying factor for the party. But Biden’s greatest promise, and perhaps the most important one in the eyes of most American voters, was his promise to provide COVID-19 relief and control the pandemic. This is why he’s president, and his aid package is very popular right now, including direct payments and federal aid to states and cities – provisions that GOP lawmakers were keen to remove. I haven’t seen a single poll where less than two-thirds of respondents support the package or its key elements, including very solid support from Republican voters. Whatever Republicans are trying to berate (and they will find something) over the next two years, it’s hard to imagine that it will prove to be just as profitable as Biden, who keeps his pandemic promises – provided, of course, he can keep them.
Thirdly, it has also become clear since that Holmes declaration that the Senate Republicans are betting on restarting their 2009-2010 playbook about a total blockade of the Obama era in order to stage a comeback. The problem is that around 2022 they are swinging the battle plan they used in the last war. The strategy telegraphed by Holmes was later confirmed by McConnell’s most loyal allies in the Senate as they tried to look beyond the simmering McConnell-Trump schism.
“We’re going to focus on what the Biden agenda looks like,” said Senator John Cornyn of Texas this week. “That will create a certain cohesion among the loyal opposition.”
“In all fairness, our party will be largely guided by how we react to what the Democrats will do,” said Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri. “A person doesn’t necessarily do this if they don’t have the White House.”
The idea that McConnell can recreate the monolith of resistance he put up during Obama’s presidency to excite a crucial cohort of Conservative voters has no basis in reality – not within his caucus and not outside of Washington. In fact, in the past few months, McConnell has not even shown himself capable of leading his caucus through his most critical transition into a post-Trump era.
By the time it was time for McConnell to raise his caucus to help Congress confirm the election results, eight Senate Republicans had defected in the vote – and that was after Trump’s murderous mob stormed the Capitol. Instead of using the certification vote to restore the good faith of a supposedly sober and disciplined Senate GOP caucus, it became a Trump loyalty test with echoes of the early-stage House Freedom Caucus, which today essentially heads the GOP in the lower chamber. Kevin McCarthy, minority chairman of the House of Representatives, is now nothing more than a lapdog to this caucus, a takeover that began almost immediately in 2011 after then-spokesman John Boehner reclaimed the hammer from Nancy Pelosi.
Similarly, McConnell bowed to the focus of the caucus when it was time to convict Trump on slam-dunk evidence of inciting a riot – the best way to get Trump out of party and politics. The New York Times confirmed this. While no GOP Senator currently has the political juice to challenge McConnell to his leadership role, “one Senator said privately that a challenge could have been instigated if Mr. McConnell broke up with the 42 other Republican Senators who voted To acquit Mr. Trump “at the moment. McConnell’s acquittal vote followed his damning reprimand against Trump. McConnell wants to finish with Trump, and the idea that his half-time was a masterful move contradicts any evidence to the contrary. He has earned the relentless wrath of Trump and his caucus is on the move, fueled by the belligerent factions of old-style McConnell loyalists and newfangled Trump cultists. In fact, people like Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin spent the week telling news outlets that McConnell “have to be a little careful. “ It seems fair to bet that McConnell is not fully in control of his caucus.
After all, the question is whether McConnell has a grip on the voters who now determine the party. His bet is that there are enough old-style Republicans voting in 2022 to bring someone like himself back to the seat of power. Perhaps the best data points we have on this are the critical statewide elections during Trump’s tenure where he did not vote as he will not vote in 2022. For example, in 2018 Republicans moved four Democratic seats. But three of those wins came in the currently deep red states: Indiana, Missouri, and North Dakota. With the exception of the GOP’s squeaky win by 10,000 votes in Florida, the Democrats either held all competitions in buoyant states (Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania) or the other way around (Arizona, Nevada). Despite the four Senate Republicans pickups in 2018 (a net two-seat pickup), I’ve long believed the year was oversold as a strong year for the GOP, given the favorable slope of their card this cycle. The only seat on the battlefield the Republicans had won was in Florida, and it was delivered by a razor-thin margin. While they cemented power in red states, they weren’t particularly competitive in traditional battlefields throughout the Rust Belt, as well as in newer swing states like Arizona and Nevada.
Given the momentum the electorate has shown over the past three election cycles, the Georgia runoff is probably the best data point we have as a measure of post-Trump electorate. And while the state’s richest suburban districts were not doing quite as favorable to Democrats as they were when Trump was elected in November, it was the pro-Trump districts that doomed the two Republican incumbents. As a post-election analysis by FiveThirtyEight revealed, “”The better Trump was doing in a county in November, the more his voter turnout fell compared to the general election. ” In short, Trump voters weren’t that keen on McConnell, even when control of the Senate was pending.
There is also evidence that the current defects in Republican electoral affiliations are as much or even more of the pro-Trump wing of the party as they are of the old GOP guard. When Gallup recently found that Republican discontent was driving support for a third party to an all-time high, 41% of that sentiment was driven by Republican / Republican leaners who thought Trump should remain the leader of the GOP, while 28% of third party support came of Republicans / Leans who didn’t want Trump to lead the party. I think we need more data before we know what exactly is happening to GOP voters, but the party has seen an unusual rate of disaffiliation in one way or another since the November elections.
Overall, it’s a picture of a battered Senate leader going against halftime with a ten-year-old battle plan but apparently failing to realize that neither his caucus nor the voters he allegedly represents are anywhere near the same army that left is war with the Obama administration. McConnell will no doubt play a piece to reunite the caucus and party behind this plan, but nothing about his plan is based on the realities of the battlefield currently before us.