The conventional wisdom on how to run a midterm campaign if your opponent controls the White House is pretty simple: ride the wave, stay focused on your most popular talking points, and don’t do anything to give the opposing party the chance to turn the election into something other than a referendum on the president, especially if said president is unpopular. The textbook target in a midterm election is the so-called median voter, typically a centrist who isn’t necessarily that focused on politics and definitely doesn’t belong to either party’s base. If there is any issue of great concern to said median voter that won’t lead to conflicted reactions, then talk about it again and again, emphatically.
Translated into the context of the 2022 midterms, Republicans have all the ingredients for a simple midterm message: an unpopular president, a discouraged Democratic base, and a simple economic issue that gives Democrats a lot of problems they cannot solve (inflation). History suggests they are on their way to victory, at least in terms of winning back the U.S. House (a really big deal since it kills a rare Democratic governing trifecta in Washington) and making gains at the state level as well. It’s kind of a no-brainer.
But are Republicans campaigning that way? So far, by and large, no. Instead, to a remarkable extent, Republican candidates and elected officials are going whole hog into culture-war topics. They’re pushing near-total bans on abortion, making law-and-order demands for a crackdown on crime, and railing against the alleged “woke indoctrination” of public-school students on matters of gender, sexuality, and race. This is happening more at the state level than in Washington. But anyone who watched the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the Supreme Court nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson or pays attention to the antics of Marjorie Taylor Greene knows that congressional Republicans are as capable of wild culture-war gyrations as your average conservative occupying a safe state-legislative seat in the rural South.
So what’s going on? Are Republicans incapable of message discipline or out of touch with an electorate that’s relatively progressive on cultural issues? Are they consumed with “base mobilization”? Or maybe they’re just mirroring Donald Trump’s self-destructive tendencies?
Here are some possible explanations for a midterm strategy gone wild.
The conservative Christian base is demanding culture war
The most obvious reason Republican politicians are serving up culture-war fare is that their party base is dominated by conservative Christians who are more concerned about the supposed deterioration of traditional values than just about any other political topic. Indeed, there is some evidence that such voters are in a counterrevolutionary state of mind, anxious to use a Republican resurgence to roll back recent progressive gains on a wide range of issues, and free of any inhibitions about displaying their religious motivations. As the New York Times recently reported, there’s a new mood firing up the Christian right’s marriage of convenience with the Republican Party thanks to the MAGA movement’s radicalism:
The infusion of explicitly religious fervor — much of it rooted in the charismatic tradition, which emphasizes the power of the Holy Spirit — into the right-wing movement is changing the atmosphere of events and rallies, many of which feature Christian symbols and rituals, especially praise music.
With spiritual mission driving political ideals, the stakes of any conflict, whether over masks or school curriculums, can feel that much larger, and compromise can be even more difficult to achieve. Political ambitions come to be about defending God, pointing to a desire to build a nation that actively promotes a particular set of Christian beliefs.
These are not people willing to accept LGBTQ+ rights and same-sex marriage as just part of the contemporary landscape. Emboldened by a right-wing trend in judicial circles that may end or sharply curtail abortion rights in a matter of weeks, and finding new allies among parents and wage earners infuriated by COVID-19 restrictions, key elements of the GOP base are not inclined to hide their light under a bushel at present, even if conventional political thinkers in their party wish they’d keep a lower profile. And because of the importance of turnout in non-presidential elections, Republicans by and large don’t want to do anything to dampen base enthusiasm, even if it flows from theocratic yearnings that will be difficult to satisfy down the road.
New and more popular culture-war issues are emerging
Even if the central motivation of many conservative-base voters is still traditional Evangelical or Catholic religious views and a rejection of progressive cultural accomplishments, there are new wrinkles in the old fabric of right-wing cultural politics. The emergence of transgender rights as the new frontier of gender and sexual inclusiveness is discomfiting to a lot of people who typically consider themselves enlightened and accepting of others. And an ancient, religion-based hostility to public education (a.k.a. “government schools”) has found new energy in concerns about COVID-19 lockdowns and the power of teachers unions, which bleeds over into “parental rights” agendas long set by homeschoolers and others wanting public subsidies for private education.
For that matter, “wokeness” itself as a political curse word has given new impetus to old-school racist and sexist impulses, beyond the ranks of conservative ideologues. And recent crime trends — or, arguably, a crime panic based on the inevitable reversal of decades-long reductions in most crimes — have made quasi-authoritarian attitudes toward urban areas as dystopian sinkholes of disorder and social pathology more common, even among swing-voter elements of the electorate.
In other words, a variety of circumstances have made right-wing culture-war politics something of a flavor of the month beyond the fever swamps in which it typically festers.
Conservatives want to change the culture now
It’s important to understand that a lot of the current culture-war energy on the right is emanating from places where conservatives already enjoy power, notably state legislatures in both red and purple jurisdictions. For many of these people, the 2022 midterms are not an opportunity to deny Democrats power or even seize more power for themselves; they’re an opportunity to aggressively govern in a culturally conservative manner without much fear of voter backlash. With the wind at their backs, Republicans are doing what they and their voters want, which is to redirect a culture perceived as godless and disordered back into its customary channels. Perhaps Republicans would be more careful about cultural counterrevolution in a less favorable political environment. But for now the historic pattern of midterm losses for the White House party, intensified by the first serious inflation scare since the 1970s, and an unpopular presidency makes it possible for conservatives to let their non-freak flag fly.
Is this just an unusual, dangerous moment that will fade if Republicans fail to meet their sky-high expectations in November? Perhaps. But keep in mind that the enduring popularity of Donald Trump in today’s conservative politics owes a lot to the 45th president’s habit of always remaining on the offensive and using divisive polarization to build a coalition of the radically aggrieved and just enough swing voters to win elections. Trumpism means never having to moderate and never retreating. Worse yet for the country, when Republicans fail electorally, Trumpism tells them they should double down on base-exciting extremism. Don’t expect them to retreat.
More on the 2022 Midterms
- The Data-Driven Strategy Behind Democrats’ State-Level Success in 2022
- No, Ron DeSantis Isn’t the Second Coming of Ronald Reagan
- Why 2022’s Big Lesson for Democrats Might Be … Nothing