Outgoing Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican, just lost the governor’s house to Democrat Andy Beshear by a slim margin. But President Trump won Kentucky by almost 30 points in 2016. Most reports concluded that Bevin had pursued too conservative a path, even for Kentucky. Many others were quick to tie the election to President Trump, and Trump’s alleged unpopularity among suburban voters, relative to a plain-vanilla establishment Republican.
In the words of the Associated Press, “Democrats’ surging strength in the suburbs reflects the anxiety Trump provokes among moderates, particularly women, who have rejected his scorched-earth politics and uncompromising conservative policies on health care, education and gun violence.”
Republican consultant Rick Tyler, who worked on Ted Cruz’s 2016 campaign and is now a MSNBC political analyst, said that because of Trump, Republicans continued to lose the support of women and the college-educated, which is “a death spiral.” Another MSNBC personality, Joe Scarborough, went on a several-minute rant about how Trump is the reason Bevin lost in Kentucky.
Yet in spite of MSNBC’s political analysis, Trump had nothing to do with Bevin’s loss in Kentucky. There’s actually a lesson for Republicans in the Bevin loss: Good candidates have the right personality, and serve working- and middle-class voters. As we will see, this supersedes simple terms like “moderate” and “conservative.”
The Chamber of Commerce Republican
Saagar Enjeti, co-host of “Rising with Krystal & Saagar,” explains why in an excellent post titled “Republicans: Don’t be like Matt Bevin, be like Ron DeSantis.” Did the GOP really fall apart in Kentucky? Enjeti points out that “every single other Republican on the ballot for state-wide office won their seats handily.” But for Bevin, “people who would have otherwise voted straight ticket took time out of their day just to stick it to this man.”
Was Bevin problematic because he was too Trumpian? Not at all. Bevin “governed as a classic libertarian chamber of commerce type Republican.” In Enjeti’s words he was a “typical slash and burn corporatist governor in a solidly white working class state.” According to Enjeti, Bevin had actually “betrayed [working class voters] and the Trump agenda.” That’s because “Simply putting on a MAGA hat and yelling Drain the Swamp isn’t enough, you actually have to walk the walk.”
Even Bevin’s rhetoric was consistently disconnected from working-class concerns. In one example, Bevin made a video trying to tie his Democrat opponent to Bernie Sanders, who was visiting the state. The video comes off like he made it because his consultants told him to.
Bevin also sounds like Mitt Romney, talking about the virtues of the job creators as opposed to the people who work to “varying degrees” and want free stuff. “The American dream is a real thing if we the people take it seriously,” he said. He never focused on what conservativism could do for working people.
A lot of Bevin’s policies weren’t bad. For example, he fought hard to restrict abortion in the state. But he dogmatically pursued Republican Party and supply-side orthodoxy above pragmatism. In one example, he wanted Kentucky to raise its sales taxes and cut income taxes, which would disproportionately affect the poor and working class. He also repeatedly advocated for zeroing out Kentucky’s corporate tax, and had previously called for a 10 percent federal corporate tax and an end to minimum wage laws.
To top it off, Bevin was rough around the edges. One of his signature policy moves was to cut Kentucky’s hugely underwater teacher pensions to make them more sustainable. When teachers went on strike in response, he blamed the striking teachers for the shooting death of a nine-year-old girl, rather than taking on the unions directly like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, did quite successfully.
He also said that children staying at home due to the strikes would face sexual abuse: “Children were harmed—some physically, some sexually, some were introduced to drugs for the first time—because they were vulnerable and left alone.” In another example, Bevin once said he was surprised there was a chess club in a majority-black school located in a poor area.
In the end though, Bevin’s problem was more about personality than gaffes. Trump says things that people don’t like, but he’s funny, and doesn’t take everything seriously. Bevin, surely a nice guy, came off like a grump. All this is why, before Bevin’s loss, his mid-30s approval rating was the second-lowest out of any governor in America.
Bevin’s loss doesn’t have anything to do with Trump, then, but it’s not about “conservatives” versus “moderates,” either. In today’s era, those terms are even less descriptive than they used to be. As Enjeti points out, just look at Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Pragmatic and Principled Working-Class Conservatism
Juxtaposed against Bevin, DeSantis has focused on families and increasing pay for middle- and working-class Floridians. DeSantis declared 2020 “the year of the teacher,” and has made a point to increase teacher pay. He’s also been more permissive on medical marijuana than his predecessor, and has directed greater funds to the Everglades.
But that doesn’t mean DeSantis is a “progressive” Republican. He’s probably one of the most conservative governors in America. As a sister proposal to higher teacher pay, he’s pushing mandatory E-Verify, which would prevent Florida businesses from hiring illegal workers.
According to Enjeti, DeSantis has also allowed teachers to carry guns in classrooms, forced colleges to host “controversial” speakers, and has cracked down on sanctuary cities in Florida that hide illegal criminals from federal authorities. DeSantis is also no lapdog of teachers’ unions. Instead, he’s overseeing a huge expansion of Florida’s school choice programs, including state-funded vouchers.
In fact, DeSantis won in 2018 because he campaigned on school choice, which unexpectedly swung 100,000 black American women in his favor on election day, away from black Democratic candidate Andrew Gillum. It should be noted that DeSantis won in 2018 by less than 40,000 ballots.
This group of 100,000 women, dubbed the “school choice moms,” are already seeing dividends because DeSantis has followed through. Thanks to DeSantis, school-choice vouchers have been expanded, in a huge victory for the first-year Republican governor. In 2019, that’s 18,000 more Florida families who get to choose their child’s school, with another 7,000 next year, and each year thereafter.
On the environment, instead of “fighting climate change,” DeSantis has focused on funding to save the Everglades. Again, this speaks to average people. Climate change is an urban globalist elite obsession, while normal people live in the world that surrounds them, and rightly believe it is possible to not live in a dump, but still have low energy bills. The end result is that DeSantis has a whopping 72 percent approval rating, while Trump barely won the state in 2016.
Campaign on More than Tax Cuts and Deregulation
You’ll note that while DeSantis surely isn’t against tax cuts and deregulation, these two policy levers are not at his forefront. Tax cuts and deregulation aren’t bad, but they aren’t even close to the only policy levers available to conservative politicians. Government policy already in place, and that has little to do with taxes or business regulations, heavily influences the economy, education, and the family.
That’s especially true 50 years after the so-called Great Society. But for some reason most GOP politicians still only focus on tax cuts and deregulation. And when pundits confront these issues, they only think in terms of culture. Yet the best the Democrats could hope for is that the GOP doesn’t stray beyond tax cuts and deregulation, ignores the family and working people, and blames family and working-class problems on the amorphous boogeyman of “culture.”
To take it one step further, the Republican Party only thinks in terms of “conservative” versus “moderate.” If a candidate wants to cut some income taxes, talks about fiscal responsibility, and doesn’t like to talk about social issues, he or she is a “moderate.” If a candidate wants a flat tax and loves to talk about social issues, he or she is “very conservative.”
But it’s not that simple. What about a candidate who wants to get abortion clinics out of the state, but also wants to focus on the family dynamics that cause the demand for abortion in the first place? What about the candidate who thinks the next tax cut should be cutting the payroll tax? What about the candidate who would raise working wages through re-industrialization and ending the steady stream of low-skilled workers entering the country? Some would call that “populism,” but maybe it’s just old-school conservatism, and the restoration of the “little platoons.”
Given the working-class family is completely broken, and median American wages have been roughly flat for about 30 years, Trump’s emergence isn’t shocking. What’s shocking is how few Republican politicians get what’s going on.
Here’s to hoping the Republican Party of the future is a lot more like Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley—another conservative with a working-class focus—and DeSantis. Any future conservative party must be nationalist, espouse Middle Class Capitalism, and pursue policies that will actually help families. The alternative is the dustbin of history.