GOP Candidates Echo Trump's Culture War Battle Cry
President Trump's most recent spat with the National Football League seemed to signal how he plans to feature the culture wars in his midterm campaign messaging. And for some GOP candidates whose fortunes will depend on a mobilized party base, that's just fine.
While Republicans on Capitol Hill often gripe about the president's inclination to veer off message — he literally tossed out the script during a tax reform event in West Virginia earlier this year to instead riff on immigration — some party strategists acknowledge its appeal among their voters.
"Trump's tax cuts are helping millions of Americans, but voters are going to want to know how Republicans are going to continue to fight for them because they feel their values are still under assault by liberal elites,” says one GOP operative familiar with Senate campaigns. “Ultimately, the 2018 Senate midterms are going to be fought on the cultural battlefield -- guns, abortion, illegal immigration, and values -- which is bad news for red-state Democrats."
Midterms are essentially referendums, a chance to register complaints with a vote. But how do you get voters riled up enough to vote against something when your party controls all levers of government? Negative partisanship tends to be the answer. In other words, the drive to get party voters to the polls is fueled by a dislike for the other side or their policies.
"We've entered an era of very … base-oriented -- and, in fact, base-only -- politics," says Florida GOP strategist Rick Wilson. "If you can't talk about something is good for you, talk about something that's bad for the other guy. ... It's an easy go-to."
One of the ironies of this election cycle is that Trump and his fellow Republicans have a lot to talk up to their voters. The economy is good, for one thing. And they passed a tax cut and confirmed a conservative Supreme Court justice. People generally feel positive about the direction of the country. But the majority of voters still disapprove of the president, according to public opinion polls. And the act of voting in a midterm in favor of the party in power might be akin to one's relationship with the utility company. You don't typically call them to congratulate them on good service. You call to register dissatisfaction or frustration when not getting the service you deserve.
"I was always baffled by the argument that the tax bill was going to turn on Republican voters in the fall," Wilson says. "When have Republicans ever been knife-in-their-teeth -- like pirates climbing on up onto the ship -- for tax reform?"
Trump's focus and comments appear to reflect this sentiment. At an April tax reform event in West Virginia, where Republicans are trying to defeat Sen. Joe Manchin this year, Trump showed roundtable participants his written remarks on the legislation before tossing them in the air. “That would’ve been a little boring," he said. "Now, I’m reading off the first paragraph, I said, ‘This is boring.’ Come on. We have to … tell it like it is.” Instead, he spoke at length and in harsh terms about the caravan of immigrants from Central America making its way toward the southern U.S. border.
And last month in Tennessee, while campaigning for Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Marsha Blackburn, Trump labeled Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi an "MS-13 lover." In launching her campaign last year, Blackburn touted her tendency to be "politically incorrect" and pledged to help Trump "build that wall." And she referenced the NFL protests, saying in her campaign video, "Yes, I stand when I hear ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’"
When the NFL announced its controversial new policy prohibiting players from kneeling for the national anthem last month, Indiana Republican Senate candidate Mike Braun released a statement in support of the new policy, arguing that "the anthem ... is not an appropriate time for civil disobedience."
He then went a step further to attack his opponent, Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly, on the issue: "Joe Donnelly should state if he agrees with the NFL’s decision to require the players to stand for the anthem or not, and not try [to] dodge the question.” Prior to the release of the new rules, Donnelly called Trump's disparagement of the players divisive. "While I would choose to stand for the national anthem with my hand over my heart, I know that, by and large, these are men who care about and are involved in their communities," he said.
West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who is running against Manchin in the fall, has evoked similar themes. "#NFL players should be down on both knees thanking god they live in country allowing them to make millions while showing such disrespect," he tweeted last year as Trump ramped up attacks on the league. For his part, the incumbent didn’t differ, saying team owners shouldn't tolerate the anthem protests. "I think everyone should stand and show respect for the flag that represents the greatest nation on earth," he said.
A new Quinnipiac poll shows that among Republican voters, 87 percent support the new NFL policy, and 70 percent said the players' protests were unpatriotic. And notably, 81 percent said they don't think professional athletes have the right to protest on the playing field.
"To see incredibly wealthy, privileged athletes who are driving Lamborghinis, who are living in mansions, refusing to show respect for the flag ... I think that’s unfortunate, I think it’s wrong," said Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who is running for re-election this year.
Strategists say that in most Senate campaigns, Republican candidates have little to lose by endearing themselves to Trump and pressing cultural issues, as this year’s battlegrounds are states where Trump is popular and where the Democrats are on defense.
But there are some areas where the turf isn't as friendly to this messaging. Trump's slight against the Philadelphia Eagles, disinviting the Super Bowl champions to the White House, may not play well in Pennsylvania, for example, where competitive congressional races are taking place. Strategists also warn that the House map is very different, and Republicans need to appeal to independents and crossover voters to be successful and hold their majority.
“The president is the ultimate culture warrior and, in many ways, he owes his 2016 victory to his ability to effectively tap into – and often create – politically explosive issues that have less to do with public policy and more about exploiting the yawning cultural and economic divide in our country," says Republican strategist Ken Spain, a former communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "By doubling down on this strategy, Republicans can undoubtedly wake up and energize a segment of the GOP voter base in advance of November, but they must also make the economic case to independent voters that their handling of the economy outweighs the president’s political downsides.”
Strategists also caution that leaning into cultural issues isn't a GOP panacea in this Democratic-friendly climate. Republican Ed Gillespie ran ads evoking the president's rhetoric on immigration and Confederate monuments, only to lose the gubernatorial race in Virginia in 2017. And Pennsylvania Republican Rick Saccone lost a special election earlier this year to Democrat Conor Lamb in a district Trump won by roughly 20 percentage points.
The central complexity is rooted in the notion that Trump's support isn't necessarily transferable down ballot. "Bottom line: Is it going to be effective? Yeah, it's going to be effective politically ... but do Trump supporters actually show up and vote Republican?" GOP strategist Rick Tyler wonders. "Nobody is going to go to the polls and say, 'By God, I'm here because I'm standing for the national anthem.'"