The very vulnerable Achilles heel of the Republican Party
Next year is the 2022 midterm elections. Polling right now, according to RealClearPolitics, shows that generic Republicans are beating generic Democrats. Pundits across the country suggest that Republicans will have a big win next year in part due to Biden’s low job approval. This predictive win isn’t set in stone, though. Republicans have two major obstacles: the first is the recruitment of good candidates and the second is their infighting.
To begin, nine of the ten most popular governors in the nation are Republicans. The top four popular governors, all Republicans, are from traditionally democratic states. They include Chris Sununu of New Hampshire (67 percent approval), Larry Hogan of Maryland (70 percent approval), Charlie Baker of Massachusetts (72 percent approval), and Phil Scott of Vermont (79 percent approval). All of these Republicans have been reelected as governor of their blue states. Hogan won reelection in 2018 with just over 55 percent of the vote, becoming only the second Republican governor in Maryland history to be reelected. A lot of Hogan’s appeal has been that he is bipartisan and works across the aisle.
Hogan is currently term-limited and not running for a third term this next year, but he has not stated whether or not he will run for the Senate next year or for president in 2024. He was largely recognized as one of the highest-profile candidates to consider challenging Trump for the Republican nomination back in 2020.
Baker recently announced he would not run for a third term as governor of Massachusetts. Polling showed he would win against the Democratic candidates and even win a three-way race as an Independent. Republican primary polls, however, were less in his favor as he was being challenged by a Trump-endorsed candidate, and one poll even showed him losing. Hogan and Baker leaving politics mark the end of an era that has, quite frankly, encompassed all of American history until now. That era is of the popular politician.
The Republican Party attempted to recruit Sununu and Scott in their respective states for the Senate. Both have declined. Sununu stated, “I’d rather push myself 120 miles an hour delivering wins for New Hampshire than to slow down and end up on Capitol Hill debating partisan politics without results.” Congress has become largely dysfunctional and it has dismayed popular bipartisan Republicans, who could potentially make it functional, from running. The nation is in a disastrous situation and cycle. Not only are popular Republican politicians either leaving politics or not running for elections they can win, but many incumbents are being challenged in their primaries.
Since former President Trump left office, he has been plotting his ultimate comeback. It is rumored that if Republicans can take back Congress in 2022, Trump will run in 2024. This is primarily because he does not want to run for president in 2024 with a Democratic Congress, potentially causing his presidency to be entangled in more impeachment attempts. Although they are set up to reclaim Congress next year, this could unravel unexpectedly.
Republican Party infighting has clouded many congressional races recently. Trump is backing candidates across the country who seem to be his loyal supporters. His endorsement power isn’t what it used to be, however. Earlier this year, Texas ran a congressional race between two Republican candidates. One was the widow of the representative who just passed away and the other was a state representative. Both were supportive of Trump, but Trump backed the widow. She lost. Traditionally, the widows of politicians win their races. This past year, Julia Letlow, a widow from Louisiana who had just lost her husband, Luke, to COVID-19 days before he was to take office, won her race handily.
In the races all across the country, Republican primary battles are happening. Just for the Senate, candidates are between those backed by Trump and those who are not, most notably occurring in North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Alaska. In Oklahoma, Republican Senator James Lankford is challenged by two candidates to the right of him. In Utah, Senator Mike Lee is challenged from the center of his party rather than to the right. Most Republican governors are also facing primary challenges either by Trump-backed candidates or by candidates that are to the right or center of them. Republican governors of Idaho, Georgia, Alabama, Texas, Ohio, South Dakota, and more are challenged from the right or a Trump backed candidate.
The two most important races for Republicans to focus on is Texas and Georgia. Beto O’Rourke and Stacey Abrams are both running unopposed in their respective state primaries. Both are incredible fundraisers and almost won their elections for Senate and governor in 2018. Although Beto O’Rourke has become unpopular in Texas since his failed presidential run, his potential opponent, Governor Greg Abbott, is also unpopular. Abbott has disenfranchised liberals with signing an abortion ban into law, independents with his handling of the electrical grid crisis earlier this year, and with those to the right of him who did not like his COVID-19 restrictions in 2020. Abbott is being challenged in his primary by a former state senator and former congressman and Chair of the Texas GOP. In Georgia, Brian Kemp was originally only challenged by a former state representative who recently switched to the Republican Party. Polls had shown that the challenger was putting a dent in Kemp’s primary polling, but Kemp was still largely safe. Now, Kemp could potentially lose his primary. Former Senator David Perdue, who just lost reelection in January, is running against Kemp in the primary, due to his fighting with Trump. He also cited the possibility of Stacey Abrams becoming governor as a reason why he is running: to prevent that possibility.
This all has an important point, one I will get to in a moment, but I would like to put this into perspective because this has happened before. Two notable races on which I would like to shed light are Wisconsin and Delaware. Wisconsin once had a governor for fourteen years who was immensely popular. In one of his reelection campaigns, he earned roughly a third of the liberal vote. He also won Milwaukee county, a Democratic stronghold today, twice. Tommy Thompson resigned as governor in 2001 to join George W. Bush’s cabinet. In 2008, he made a brief unsuccessful run for president, and in 2012, he ran for the Senate and was widely regarded to win. Polling up until the fall showed him beating Democrat Tammy Baldwin. There was a slight problem, however: Thompson was in a heated primary surrounded by candidates who were more right-wing than him, although he was already a fairly conservative candidate. Republicans were so bent on getting the most conservative candidate that they ended up getting the opposite of what they wanted. Thompson barely made it out of the primary, only winning around 34 percent. He spent much of his money in the primary so that when the general election came around, Baldwin spent way more than him. Baldwin had no primary battle and had been sitting on a war chest of funds for her campaign. On election day in November, Thompson lost by over five percent.
Finally, during the Delaware race in 2010, there was a special election to determine who would succeed Joe Biden, who had just left the Senate to become vice president. The race was between the moderate popular Republican Congressman Mike Castle and the more Conservative Tea Party favorite Christine O’Donnell. Polls had shown that Mike Castle would beat Democrat Chris Coons by double digits, but Castle lost the primary to O’Donnell. The Republicans’ problem, in this case, was not that they were lacking money after a heated primary, but that they voted against a popular politician and nominated a more extreme, unlikeable candidate. Even though they spent millions more dollars than the Democrats, they lost by over 16 points. A race they could have easily won became a race they lost in a landslide.
My point is that Republicans are in a predictably good position but a potentially bad one. They cannot recruit the candidates they need to reclaim Congress. Popular bipartisan politicians are dismayed by the lack of getting things done in Congress and the bitter partisanship. They need all the seats they can get, and governors like Phil Scott and Chris Sununu not running hurt their chances of reclaiming the Senate. In addition, Republicans and Trump are creating avoidable problems. Trump primary challenges may be okay for Republicans in solidly red states, but in states like Georgia and Texas that are now arguably more swing states, they need to be as unified as possible if they are going to win. Although Greg Abbott may be on track to win his primary, it looks bad when an already mildly unpopular governor is not wanted by a large portion of his party. In Georgia, a primary battle between a sitting governor and a former senator could create one of the most expensive primary races in history. Stacey Abrams would have the advantage; she is already doing well in the polls, and if she builds up her money, she is sure to win the general election. Republicans need to be united over who can win their elections. If they wish to recruit those who don’t like the partisan inability to legislate, they need to practice bipartisan legislation to get things done. If they don’t, the exact person they are trying to prevent from getting into office could end up winning.