Donald Trump’s dominance in Republican presidential polls has prompted voluminous commentary on both left and right, most of it ominous, about the future of the GOP. No less than Glenn Beck has said that nominating Trump would trigger the “end of the Republican Party,” while Redstate.com editor Erik Erickson finds the party “infested with charlatans, conmen, louts, and Donald Trump,” a situation he compares with the dissolution of the Whig Party after the election of 1854. On the left, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson declares this the year that “The Republican Party as we knew it was destroyed by Donald Trump,” who, in Robinson’s view, has exposed the chasm between the party’s establishment and its voting base.
Yet even as we ponder the Trump phenomenon, another narrative has defined the Republican party over the last six years—the stunning success of state GOP organizations around the country. In fact, were it not for Trump’s sturdy appeal to a slice of the GOP primary electorate, the real story of 2016 would be the decline of a Democratic Party increasingly dominated by public-sector unions, no-growth environmentalists, and redistributionists. Since 2009, these Democrats have been overwhelmed by an electoral tsunami at the state level, where the party has lost more than 900 state legislative seats to Republicans, who now boast 31 governors and control of 30 state legislatures. Republicans have achieved these gains largely through candidates and agendas that, while clearly a reaction against President Obama’s progressive policies and extralegal efforts to circumvent the Constitution, reflect a more broad-based agenda than the Trump to-do list. Republican state victories, including in some of America’s bluest states, are the result of a coalition unlike any that Trump is likely to assemble, one that includes a significant portion of crucial independent voters repelled by the message of the modern Democratic Party. Though the turmoil caused by Trump’s antiestablishment candidacy makes Republican prospects in November uncertain, the party may be in a better position to survive The Donald than some think.
Republican state gains began almost immediately after Obama assumed office, with 2009 gubernatorial victories in two Democratic-leaning states—New Jersey and Virginia. Even at this early stage, it was clear that voters were reacting against Democratic governors and legislatures who had interpreted Obama’s victory as a signal that big government was back. In 2009 alone, states raised taxes by $29 billion collectively, the largest tax increase among states in history. The next year, Republicans running on tax cuts, regulatory reform, and economic competitiveness gained 680 seats in state legislative elections, control of 26 state legislatures, and another seven net governorships. It seemed unlikely that the GOP could improve much on this performance, but in 2014, the GOP won governors’ races in three of America’s most Democratic states—Illinois, Maryland, and Massachusetts—while losing only one incumbent governor, in Pennsylvania, despite intense Democratic efforts to defeat several high-profile GOP governors. In 2008, according to Gallup, 35 states leaned Democratic; today, by contrast, Gallup rates only 17 states as solidly Democratic.
Many of these GOP victories, especially in blue and so-called purple states, demonstrated a remarkably successful appeal to independents—who make up nearly four-in-ten voters, according to Gallup—and to blue-collar voters, despite the frequent lament that GOP elites are out of touch with working people. For instance, South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who appeared to attack Trump when delivering the Republican reply to President Obama’s State of the Union, garnered 64 percent of the independent men’s vote and 44 percent of the women’s vote when she was reelected in 2014. She also took home 55 percent of votes from those without college degrees. Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, a target of Democratic unions thanks to his successful efforts to limit collective bargaining for government workers, nonetheless won the blue-collar vote and captured 59 percent of independent men and 49 percent of independent women in a state now almost evenly divided between the parties. In Michigan, a state that still leans Democratic, Republican governor Rick Snyder (now coming under fire for the Flint water scandal) won reelection with the support of 63 percent of independent men and 58 percent of independent women.
Overwhelming support from independents also powered Republican victories in solidly Democratic states. In the second-most Democratic state in the nation, Maryland anti-tax advocate Larry Hogan won a close race with a tax-cutting message that gave him a 27-point advantage with independent voters. Bruce Rauner won in heavily Democratic Illinois with support from 68 percent of independent men and 59 percent of women. Other GOP candidates, including New Jersey’s Chris Christie, Ohio’s John Kasich, and Georgia’s Nathan Deal won with a majority of both independent and blue-collar votes.
In the anti-establishment fervor now gripping parts of the Republican Party, candidates who so successfully attract independent votes might seem like compromisers willing to sacrifice basic party principles. Yet it’s clear from the campaign platforms of defeated Democratic gubernatorial candidates that GOP victories of the last five years prevented billions of dollars in local tax increases, avoided a vast expansion of state Medicaid programs under Obamacare, and installed governors willing to challenge the authority of federal agencies like the EPA to dictate policies to the states.
National elections, of course, involve different priorities than state-wide races. Much of the support Trump is garnering seems to be for his tough stance on international trade and tariffs (especially with nations like China), for his hyper-restrictive immigration agenda, and for a foreign policy that would include seizing assets like oil fields around the world in a display of U.S. power. Trump appears to be gaining with Republican voters frustrated by the party’s inability to fashion a stronger response in Washington to President Obama, even though Republicans now control both houses of Congress.
But anger alone isn’t a message that resonates with the broader electorate. In nationwide surveys of all voters, Trump struggles for support, especially among independents—a weakness that, if it persists in a general election, would seriously hurt his chances of victory. In a late December poll, Trump attracted just 37 percent of independent votes in a race against Hillary Clinton and 35 percent against Bernie Sanders. By contrast, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz—the only other GOP candidates measured against Clinton and Sanders in the poll—bested their Democratic rivals among independents and consequently ran more competitive races overall. Among all voters, Trump earned a favorable rating of just 33 percent and a stunning 59 percent unfavorable ranking—the highest of any candidate from either party. Perhaps most tellingly, only 5 percent of voters had no opinion on Trump, while about one-third on average said they didn’t know enough about the other GOP candidates to form an opinion.
If Trump becomes the nominee, then, his legacy may be to hand the presidential election to Democrats in a year in which discontent with Washington and the weakness of the Democratic field should have produced a monumental GOP victory. But even if that happens, Republicans will still control dozens of state houses and governorships, and there’s little evidence that Democratic organizations are poised to change their thinking. In a 2015 analysis of the party’s state and local debacle of the last six years, the Democratic National Committee attributed its local woes to dark forces, like state laws that the party claims make it difficult for Democratic voters to turn out. Party leaders also argue unconvincingly that most Americans share Democrats’ values but that election defeats reflect a failure to communicate with voters. The analysis said virtually nothing about fiscal policy or economic competitiveness.
In an age when media commentary focuses so pervasively on national politics, it’s tempting to think that parties are exclusively fashioned and refashioned from the top down by federal elections. But the most consequential response by Republicans to Obama’s agenda has occurred at the state level, where local victories have done the most to thwart the march of big government. That dynamic seems likely to stay in place, Trump turmoil notwithstanding.
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