House majority leader Eric Cantor’s stunning primary loss to Dave Brat, an underfunded, virtually unknown challenger, has a simple explanation: Republican voters don’t much care for their own party’s politicians these days. That’s why they keep losing to amateurs and upstarts.
The poll data could not be clearer. In December 2013, Fox News asked voters what they thought of both congressional parties. The country as a whole has a negative view of both of them. Democrats, however, had a favorable impression of their own side, by a margin of 63-33 percent, and liberals supported congressional Democrats 51-43 percent. Republicans, by contrast, disliked their side in Congress 37-57 percent; among conservatives it was worse, 28-67 percent. This is no outlier, either. Fox has been getting the same answers from voters since 2010.
Obviously, not every Republican incumbent is in jeopardy. The same night Eric Cantor lost his primary by a large margin, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina cruised to victory, despite being often at odds with the conservative base. Similarly, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell—who is at least as identified with the Republican leadership in the public mind as Cantor—easily bested a Tea Party challenger last month. What is tricky about these insurgents is that they are first-time candidates like Brat or ambitious pushers like Chris McDaniel, the Mississippi state senator who challenged Senator Thad Cochran rather than “wait his turn.” It’s hard to predict which ones will be effective. Much depends on the quality of the challenger’s campaign and the response of the incumbent.
But there is also a larger point to the Cantor defeat and the upsets that preceded it. They are the symptom of a problem in the GOP. Political parties are majority-seeking coalitions; they either win with sufficient regularity or they go out of business, as the Whigs and the Federalists did. And a party’s chances of winning are very bad indeed when its own side thinks it is doing a lousy job.
What, then, is to be done? Probably Republicans should start by considering the rhetoric of their harshest critics. When Democrats talk to voters about the Republican party, they say that the GOP is in the pocket of big business, that it does not care about average people, and that its policies will hurt Main Street for the sake of Wall Street.
This is hypocrisy, considering the tens of millions Democrats have collected from the likes of Goldman Sachs. But politics is no place for intellectual consistency. More important, this attack is more or less the one Dave Brat used on Eric Cantor in a Republican primary. One Brat campaign item read: “There are 20 million Americans who can’t find a full-time job. But Eric Cantor wants to give corporations another 20 million foreign workers to hire instead.”
When liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans agree on the political potency of a message, it’s worth pausing to wonder if they’re right. Of course, Republicans need not respond by adopting the positions of Elizabeth Warren and calling for onerous regulations on private enterprise and a Thomas Piketty-style redistribution of wealth. In fact, those leftist prescriptions are quite susceptible to capture by the very “malefactors of great wealth” whom the Democrats malign. Rather, the GOP emphasis could be on limiting the reach of government in ways that protect and advance the middle class, including stopping needless handouts to nonworkers on the one hand and special access for the well-heeled on the other.
The GOP leadership has failed to do this. Three examples come to mind. The first is the farm bill, which has been an embarrassment for generations. There is no good economic argument for this boondoggle. Even farmers do not seem to want it; the entire Kansas House delegation voted against it, yet there is no populist revolt brewing in the Sunflower State against Tim Huelskamp, who represents the rural, western half. The farm bill can’t be killed because a fraction of wealthy farmers and agribusinesses profit from it, and they have high-powered lobbyists with deep connections to the Republican establishment.
The second is the Export-Import Bank, which is little more than a means to funnel taxpayer money to corporate heavyweights like Boeing. There is no good reason for the Ex-Im Bank, except that it provides a hefty subsidy to industries with strong lobbying operations. The GOP-controlled House of Representatives dutifully voted to reauthorize it last year.
The third is immigration reform. Why the push for this now? Certainly, there is no clamor in the electorate. Mitt Romney failed to capture the White House because of stinging defeats in the Rust and Farm Belts, not because he lost among Latino voters allegedly concerned with immigration reform. Moreover, there is a massive supply glut in today’s labor market, and the Congressional Budget Office predicted that the Senate bill would depress wages and increase unemployment. Why pursue such a measure? Dave Brat has the answer: Bigwig donors and K Street lobbyists want it.
Ask your average voter about the farm bill, the Ex-Im Bank, or the CBO scoring of the immigration bill, and you will get blank stares. Even so, the dribs and drabs that voters hear about the Republican party do accumulate, creating the widespread impression that the party stands not with the middle class, but with the wealthy and well connected.
If the GOP political class ever wants to return to a national majority, it needs to change that impression. Talking points, clever slogans, and a handful of niche issues that target middle-class voters are insufficient. The party’s reputation needs to be drastically reformed. It has to cleanse itself of cronyism and clientelism, then call for a similar purification of the federal government. This process begins with the aforementioned policies, but it surely does not end with them.
Until that day, angry Republican voters will continue to use primary elections to knock off unsuspecting incumbents, and disaffected independents—the voters who so often decide general elections—will keep favoring the Democrats.
Jay Cost is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.