The GOP’s 2018 Autopsy: Democracy Is Our Enemy

Laboratories of oligarchy. Photo: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Republican Party entered this year’s battle for House control with 22 seats to spare, a map gerrymandered in its favor to a historic (and arguably unconstitutional) degree, and the benefit of presiding over decades-low unemployment and robust economic growth.

It left with (at least) 40 fewer members in the lower chamber, a popular vote loss of more than 8 percent, and the ignominious achievement of having forfeited more House seats in a single midterm than it had at any point since 1974’s post-Watergate bloodbath.

The party has responded to this historic rebuke by rethinking … approximately nothing. Or so, the New York Times reports:

With a brutal finality, the extent of the Republicans’ collapse in the House came into focus last week as more races slipped away from them and their losses neared 40 seats.

Yet nearly a month after the election, there has been little self-examination among Republicans about why a midterm that had seemed at least competitive became a rout.

President Trump has brushed aside questions about the loss of the chamber entirely, ridiculing losing incumbents by name, while continuing to demand Congress fund a border wall despite his party losing many of their most diverse districts … The quandary, some Republicans acknowledge, is that the party’s leaders are constrained from fully grappling with the damage Mr. Trump inflicted with [suburban] voters, because he remains popular with the party’s core supporters and with the conservatives who will dominate the caucus even more in the next Congress.

In truth, the Times’ assessment gives Republicans both too little credit, and too much. On the latter count, the paper gives undue credence to the party’s internal consensus that Donald Trump was the primary author of its electoral woes. The president’s garish rebranding of the GOP doubtlessly cost the party significant market share with college-educated whites. But then, so did Paul Ryan’s plutocratic agenda: The House Speaker forced many of his caucus’s most vulnerable members to vote for a historically unpopular health-care bill, and then, a giant tax-cut package that explicitly singled out the GOP’s blue-state base of affluent homeowners for tax hikes. (Exit polls, and the Republican Party’s own campaign messaging, suggest that the GOP’s botched Obamacare repeal effort was a major liability for the party in races all across the country, while its struggles in high-income suburbs indicate that rolling back the SALT deduction to finance windfall tax breaks for the superrich did not play well with the party’s merely rich constituents.)

A broader problem with laying all of the GOP’s troubles at the president’s feet is that the party’s popular support was in structural decline long before Trump came on the scene. In 2016, the Republican standard-bearer lost the national popular vote for the sixth time in seven elections. As of 2012, it was already clear that the GOP’s support among the fastest-growing segments of the electorate — nonwhite and millennial voters — was weak and getting weaker.

And none of Trump’s Establishment rivals in 2016 (not Marco Rubio nor Jeb Bush) evinced any interest in pushing for the ideological changes (ostensibly) necessary to make the GOP a majoritarian party again. None called for Republicans to cease making tax cuts for the rich (i.e., one of the most universally reviled policy ideas in the United States) its top legislative priority, or to recognize the necessity of redistributive social programs in an era of stagnant middle-class wages and skyrocketing health and child-care costs. None dared challenge the GOP’s loyalty to the losing side of a culture war over reproductive rights, or its opposition to an even nominal response to the burgeoning climate crisis (a stance that might not be a great liability with the average Boomer, but is with the median millennial).

And they did none of those things for the same reason that congressional Republicans aren’t doing any of them now, in the wake of historic midterm losses: The party is financially beholden to a donor class of reactionary plutocrats (who expect high returns on their political investments), and thus, is electorally dependent on Evangelical Christians and “racial conservatives” — which is to say, voters who are sufficiently alienated by America’s increasingly cosmopolitan cultural values to vote for Wyatt Koch’s material interests.

All this said, the Times’ claim that the GOP has neglected to mount any constructive response to its 2018 losses is manifestly unfair. Republicans heard the electorate’s message loud and clear — and in Wisconsin and Michigan, the party is doing everything in its power to muzzle that electorate, and nullify its verdict.

The GOP might be losing ground with the public writ large. But it has retained (or, in some places, strengthened) its grip on low-density areas that enjoy wildly disproportionate representation at both the state and federal levels. In Wisconsin and Michigan, Republicans’ strength in rural areas — combined with heavily gerrymandered district maps — allowed the GOP to retain comfortable state legislative majorities in the midterms, despite receiving fewer votes in statewide races. In response to this outcome, the GOP’s legislative majorities in both states aren’t resting on their laurels, or resigning themselves to their newly limited authority. Rather, they’re using their lame-duck sessions to usurp a wide variety of powers from their states’ incoming Democratic governors and attorneys general.

The Badger State GOP’s power grab is especially ambitious. There, Republican state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos have developed a 141-page plan for insulating the Republican agenda from majoritarian rebuke. If implemented, their reforms would:

• Cut early voting from six weeks to two weeks, a measure aimed at reducing nonwhite turnout (African-Americans rely disproportionately on early voting, and a nearly identical GOP proposal was struck down by the judiciary in 2016, on the grounds that it “intentionally discriminate[d] on the basis of race.”

• Block incoming Democratic governor Tony Evers from rolling back the state’s voter-ID law (which likely reduces voter participation among nonwhite and low-income voters, who are disproportionately likely to lack driver’s licenses).

• Reschedule Wisconsin’s 2020 presidential primary, so that it does not take place on the same day as the state’s Supreme Court election. The GOP boasts a 4-3 majority on Wisconsin’s high court, but one of that body’s far-right justices will be on the ballot in two years. And that justice would be highly likely to lose, if he had to face voters on the day of a high-turnout, Democratic presidential primary election. So, over the objections of the state’s county clerks — who say that separating the elections would create a logistical nightmare — Republicans wish to move the Supreme Court justice’s election to a day when fewer voters are liable to show up at the polls.

• Prohibit the incoming Democratic attorney general Josh Kaul from pulling out of a lawsuit aimed at abolishing the Affordable Care Act. Kaul made his opposition to that lawsuit the central message of his campaign, and voters rewarded him for doing so. But the GOP believes that the (non-democratically elected) state legislature should have authority over when the attorney general is allowed to withdraw the state from lawsuits.

• Transfer the power to distribute court settlements away from the attorney general’s office and to the state legislature.

• Empower the legislature to intervene in any legal challenge to an existing state law by allowing it to spend taxpayer funds on private attorneys to handle such cases — instead of the attorney general. Among other things, this would allow Wisconsin’s legislative majority to defend the gerrymandered maps that enable its undemocratic governance, even if the new attorney general will not.

• Require Governor Evers to implement Scott Walker’s work requirements for Medicaid — and to secure state legislative approval before submitting any requests to modify the state’s approach to administering any federal programs. Since effectively administering such programs requires states to seek federal waivers on a regular basis, this provision would effectively enable the GOP legislature to hold Evers’s administration hostage to its partisan demands, over and over again.

• Revoke Evers’s power to appoint the leader of Wisconsin’s Economic Development Corporation (WEDC), the board responsible for attracting corporate investment with public subsidies (which is to say, the entity that oversaw the Foxconn boondoggle that helped end Walker’s tenure).

MoveOn.org’s Ben Wikler succinctly summarizes how all these measures add up to a (remarkably robust and comprehensive) response to the Wisconsin GOP’s midterm losses.

If all these measures weren’t enough to establish the Wisconsin GOP’s contempt for democracy, when Scott Fitzgerald was asked about his package of laws that would effectively dictate Wisconsin’s health-care and economic-development policies in the immediate term — and how the state distributes political influence between its urban and rural areas in the long run — he told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, “It’s real kind of inside baseball, kind of legislative stuff that it’s hard for me to believe people will get too excited about.”

Meanwhile, in Michigan, the Republican-held legislature is aiming to limit the power of that state’s new, popularly elected Democratic governor, secretary of State, and attorney general — by empowering the legislature to intervene in legal challenges to state law (in place of the attorney general), and revoking the secretary of State’s authority over campaign-finance law. Secretary of State–elect Jocelyn Benson campaigned on a pledge to crack down on anonymous contributions from corporations and well-heeled donors; Michigan Republicans hope to prevent her from honoring that promise by shifting oversight of campaign-finance laws to a commission that would be incapable of taking action without Republican support.

To be sure, a few defensive, jurisdiction-stripping measures in two states do not add up to a coherent, national response to the “blue wave.” But the GOP’s Midwest power grabs are indicative of a broader strategy for immunizing conservative power from the whims of an increasingly hostile public.

Republicans’ dominance in rural areas has allowed them to retain significant power in statehouses and the Senate. And the GOP is working doggedly to consolidate the former by restricting access to the ballot, while using gerrymanders to dilute the clout of Democratic constituencies it can’t disenfranchise. Meanwhile, control over the White House and Senate is enabling Donald Trump to fortify the conservative movement’s grip over the federal judiciary — which is to say, over the principle check on state-level voter-suppression efforts.

The Republican Party’s few bright spots on November 6 testified to the efficacy of these gambits: The conservative Supreme Court majority’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act enabled Brian Kemp to win Georgia’s governor’s race with the aid of voter suppression, while the Florida GOP’s success in formally disenfranchising more than 20 percent of the Sunshine State’s voting-age African-Americans allowed Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis to eke out razor-thin victories.

Demographic change might very well give Democrats a durable edge in national elections over the coming decade. But by exploiting (and creatively exacerbating) our political system’s structural biases toward rural voters — and the extraordinary powers of our federal judiciary — Republicans can plausibly retain a “floor” of power high enough to frustrate progressive reform without expanding its existing coalition, or moderating ideologically. And in a two-party system, if the GOP can maintain power in the courts — and remain (at the very least) in perpetual striking distance of a Senate majority — then it would only ever take one ill-timed recession for Republicans to regain unified control of the federal government.

All of which is to say: The GOP does not have a plan for remaining electorally competitive in a democratic United States. But it doesn’t necessarily need one.

The GOP’s 2018 Autopsy: Democracy Is Our Enemy