OPINION — Whenever there is a special election or an off-year one, you can count on both parties to react in a familiar fashion. They focus on the bright spots and dismiss losses by telling us, “Don’t read too much into it.”
Last Tuesday’s elections were a mixed bag for Republicans with some positive gains, but overall, they pointed to some key challenges for next year. Races in traditionally red states like Mississippi went generally well for the most part, as to be expected. Republicans can point to certain local races in upstate New York and New Jersey where there were some noteworthy gains. Notably, while the GOP lost the Kentucky governor’s race by a slim margin, it swept the other five statewide offices, four of them with margins of more than 10 points, and elected a Republican African American attorney general.
But in other places, the results should send up serious red flags for Republicans. The losses in local races in Pennsylvania are worrisome when looking ahead to 2020. Most obvious, the Democrats’ takeover of the Virginia state legislature has now made the once moderate to conservative commonwealth an increasingly liberal blue state as Democratic territory continues to expand.
The question is whether Republicans are taking the necessary steps to understand why they lost ground or underperformed in some areas that will be key in 2020 but won local and state races in others. Both offer learning opportunities and data-based answers to questions that always surround a mixed-outcome election so a party can strategically adjust its 2020 battle plan before next year.
Did the party lose a seat or a statewide election because of a weak candidate or a bad campaign, which is the usual postelection blanket explanation? Or would it make more sense to find out if there was a strategic error and something bigger going on that the party failed to understand and address?
I’m a big fan of after action reports. The objective for AARs is not to win the last war but to understand the lessons to be learned to win the next one. Without them, errors get repeated and myths are created.
Unfortunately, I get the feeling that many party operatives seem to be racing ahead to the 2020 election that’s one year away, when they should be studying more closely the lessons of the 2018 and 2019 elections. Many of last Tuesday’s outcomes are indicative of the same problems Republicans faced in 2018, yet that election seems to be in the rearview mirror for a lot of party consultants.
It’s important to remember that off-year elections aren’t always a harbinger of what’s to come. But to write off bad results or accept good ones without a serious analysis of what happened and why means the party starts the all-important presidential year lacking the crucial information it needs to adapt next fall’s legislative and campaign strategy to the present political reality.
All the money in the world isn’t a substitute for a deep understanding of what voters were telling us last week. Dollars are important resources for any campaign, but if you don’t understand the voters, especially independents, so you know where to put those resources, the money advantage doesn’t mean much. Just ask President Hillary Clinton.
So, what should Republicans be thinking about for 2020? Here are four areas to start:
The Trump factor
Clearly, the president will be an asset in certain areas, particularly in the red states; but in other places, he simply won’t. What happened in Virginia makes it clear that the president’s impact in places where he isn’t popular is a challenge to be addressed. A conventional turnout operation isn’t enough, and more emphasis on reaching and appealing to persuadable voters is needed.
Suburbs and beyond
Republicans have more than a suburbs problem. There are problems in rural areas, too, that emerged in 2018, yet very few people are talking about it. Republicans saw larger drops among rural women (-21 points from 2010 to 2018) than they saw even among suburban women (-13). Some are warning of an “electoral realignment in the suburbs.” I would argue the challenges at hand aren’t limited to the suburbs. Democrats will use health care to target both suburban and rural voters, so what’s the Republican strategy to counteract further losses in these areas?
Democratic nominee factor
In terms of liking or not liking the president, every voter in America has had plenty of time to decide where they come down on that question. There is a very good chance that in 2020 there will be a Democratic nominee a lot of voters don’t like either, and a significant percentage will neither like Trump nor the Democrat. In 2016, 18 percent of the electorate had an unfavorable view of both Trump and Clinton, and Trump won them by 17 percent. That was almost 1 in 5 voters — a significant chunk.
But something missed by many after the 2016 election is the fact that Republican congressional candidates won these same unhappy voters by 30 percent. This reflects one of the strategic challenges for the Trump campaign. In 2016, 20 percent of his vote came from people who had an unfavorable view of him, and he needs to create a more positive impression with them to hold on to their support.
The base isn’t enough
Neither party’s base is large enough to sustain a majority. Without independents and women, it is not going to happen. Looking at the special election in Ohio’s 12th District a couple of months before last November’s election, there were alarm bells about the independent vote. The lessons of that election went largely unheeded by campaign consultants. Everything, yet again, became about base turnout driven by anti-Pelosi ads, and in the midterms that followed, Republicans lost independents by 12 percent nationally. A strategy for attracting independents, women and other majority coalition groups, beyond base turnout, is absolutely essential, and that takes a deep dive into where these groups are today.
Last Tuesday’s results indicate Republicans still have a lot of work to do for next year. Despite the bright spots, the overall outcome means they have much more to rethink.
David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.
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