It’s risky to generalize from a single special election, but Tuesday’s too-close-for-GOP-comfort Arizona special election is part of a broader trend hinting that Republicans might be in for a disappointing November. Generic-ballot polling has shown a significant lead for Democrats, albeit one that has diminished since late 2017. Meanwhile, polling for contested Senate seats suggests that Republicans could be almost as likely to lose the Senate as they are to pick up seats overall (GOP-held seats in Arizona, Nevada, and Tennessee look like they will be hard-fought). None of this means that Republicans are necessarily fated to electoral catastrophe in the midterms, but it does indicate they could be facing some significant headwinds.
In response to these difficulties, Republicans have tended in two directions, both of which have shortcomings. The “smart” play according to many Beltway cognoscenti is for Republicans to run on the economy and last year’s tax package. However, while economic growth has improved, it’s not yet the roaring ’90s. Meanwhile, polls show that the tax plan is not universally beloved. This messaging strategy also misses that fact that, in many cases, American political campaigns are about the future, not the past. In fact, it’s usually the minority party that is most able to use the past as a political weapon: to criticize the failings of the majority (see 1994, 2006, and 2010).
The other approach has been for Republicans to try to campaign as personally loyal to Donald Trump or to style themselves after a Trumpian persona. This strategy, too, has its limits. The president has a net negative approval rating, and making him the center of a midterm campaign is almost guaranteed to maximize the turnout of the Democratic base. Most Republican voters support Donald Trump (which is why campaigning against the president is unlikely to be a successful strategy for many Republican candidates), but loyalty to President Trump alone will probably not cause many Trumpian voters to turn out — just as many core Obama supporters did not turn out during the 2010 and 2014 midterms.
If the GOP needs more of a forward-looking vision for the midterms, it would seem that one strategy would be to lay out an affirmative policy vision. The rise of the “Resistance” has pushed many Democrats toward fringe positions of immigration, identity politics, and other issues. Republicans could draw attention to those issues and also offer policies that would address conservative-populist concerns while also appealing to independents. For instance, they could propose increasing the number of medical residencies or call for a specific reduction in guest-worker programs. So far, the Republican Congress has failed to deliver on populist priorities (especially, though not only, on immigration), and the ill-fated effort to cut the Affordable Care Act’s health-care subsidies did great damage to the party’s and the president’s approval ratings. A populist-conservative legislative agenda seems like a much more promising political strategy than does boasting about the economy or flattering the president.
There are numerous areas where Republicans could advance populist issues in harmony with conservative principles. However, mounting such an effort would require the Republicans in Congress to resist the temptation to act like ghost-ship majority — drifting rudderless until a November tsunami tears them apart.