Most 2018 midterm postmortems have identified the same groups of voters as Republican weak spots. Chief among them are college-educated suburban voters, especially women, and millennials, who all stand out because they are swing voters likely to expand their share of the electorate, and because they really, really don’t seem to like the kind of GOP Donald Trump is building.
You know what else they tend to have in common? Progressive views on culture-war issues, which often offset comparatively more conservative views on economic policy, fiscal policy, and the size of the government. There are three notable state-level role models for Republican politics that caters to this combination of voter preferences, as RealClearPolitics’ Adele Malpass notes:
The oxymoron of the 2018 elections is that three deep-blue states elected Democratic U.S. senators by wide margins while also electing Republican governors. In the so- called “People’s Republic of Vermont,” voters overwhelmingly re-elected both progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders and Republican Gov. Phil Scott. It was the same story in reliably liberal Massachusetts where voters bestowed second terms on Elizabeth Warren and Charlie Baker. Ditto in Maryland for Ben Cardin and Larry Hogan. So how did Republican governors win in states where Hillary Clinton had some of her largest margins of victory in 2016?
The campaign playbook was the same in all three states: stick to local issues while being socially liberal and fiscally conservative.
But there’s a real problem with taking that approach at the national level. The sine qua non of “social liberalism” is being pro-choice on abortion policy. And in national GOP politics, that’s a position that has all but been read out of existence.
As advocates on both sides of the issue confirmed last summer, the retirements of congressmen Charlie Dent and Rodney Frelinghuysen, along with the absence of any successors winning primaries in competitive races, meant there would no longer be a single pro-choice Republican in the House in 2019. That’s right: All 200 surviving House Republicans want to make abortion illegal, with variations in the limited circumstances they’d allow as exemptions to the general rule of denying women reproductive rights.
Yes, there remain two pro-choice Republicans in the Senate: Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski. But Collins’s pro-choice street cred was severely damaged by her support for Brett Kavanaugh, and Murkowski’s relationship with her own party back home was strained by her “no” vote on that confirmation. And the anti-abortion movement believes the 2018 midterms significantly increased its power in the Senate and in the party, as the New York Times observed:
Social conservatives said on Wednesday they were elated by the victories in the Senate and in the governors’ races, which they believe provide openings to push their agenda in the judiciary and the states even if a Democratic-led House ties up legislative priorities of President Trump and Washington Republicans.
“We are so much stronger than we were before,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group that led an extensive turnout operation this year in states like North Dakota, Indiana and Missouri, where incumbent Democratic senators were defeated by anti-abortion Republicans. “We win when we go back to our roots,” she added.
With the Trump administration regarding its hard-core stance on abortion as central to its relationship with white evangelical “base” voters (a relationship policed by Vice-President Pence), the odds of the GOP giving a new breed of suburban political warriors space to maneuver on this issue are virtually nil. The next election, moreover, will be framed in no small part around the ability of Donald Trump to secure a second term in which to consummate a conservative judicial counterrevolution whose most immediate and important goal is the reversal of Roe v. Wade.
Polarization over abortion means that Democrats have all but lost their “pro-life” wing as well. But there are significantly more rank-and-file pro-choice Republicans than there are pro-life Democrats. And as Sarah Jones pointed out recently, Democrats don’t really need strongly anti-abortion voters to forge a majority. Republicans do need pro-choice voters, now and in the future, and at the worst possible time, their ability to accommodate that point of view is vanishing in the fires of the culture wars.