“McConnell,” a weekend NBC headline read, “wants to win the suburbs by defusing cultural hot buttons.”
His goal, the carefully placed story reports, is to “downplay the contentious issues on which suburban voters may be more sympathetic to Democrats.”
Those issues listed include guns, abortion, and Donald Trump, of course. That’s not where it ends, though; that’s never where it ends with D.C. Republicans.
Gender ideology and childhood transitioning? That’s an uncomfortable fight for the retired businessmen who make up much of the national GOP. Critical race theory and intersectionality in schools? Another doozy. And if our bi-annual “Gang of X” crews mean anything, even immigration is a lot harder for Republicans to talk about than, say, taxes and regulations.
These sorts of articles don’t just fall out of reporters’ brains, though: They’re placed by interested parties. In this case, it’s Sen. Mitch McConnell and his team, who are now nakedly working to run a 2012 election strategy in 2022. They’re not even hiding it anymore.
Those old enough to remember 2012, however, might recall that it didn’t work — and a divisive and then-unpopular President Barack Obama solidly defeated the GOP.
The strategy was a disaster then, and there’s even stronger reason to believe it will be more disastrous 10 years on. Why?
For one, McConnell and his team have the wrong year. For another, McConnell and his team have chosen the exactly wrong fight to move their targets (suburban parents). And finally: McConnell and his team have fundamentally misunderstood the nature of — and source of — the very fights they’re trying to disengage from.
But let’s start with the wrong year: 2022 might be a year like any other for most Americans, but in politics, 2022 is a midterm year. That makes a difference in a number of ways, including that we’re going to see fewer voters. Sure, turnout will be solid, but unlike with general elections (2020, 2024, etc.), only the most active and most motivated will turn out. Because of this, these off-year elections are decided by the party faithful more than anyone else.
November’s winners will be the candidates who rev up their bases the most — and nothing excites Republican base voters like the issues McConnell so desperately wants to avoid.
Even if it were 2024, however, there’s a second thing wrong with McConnell & Co.’s get-out-the-vote strategy: The “cultural hot buttons” are exactly what have driven suburban moderates away from the Democratic Party in the first place.
Though suburban moderates (and women, in particular) were driven toward voting for Joe Biden in the 2020 general election by what they perceived to be an atmosphere of constant cultural conflict around the Trump White House, just one year later, Republican Glenn Youngkin was able to win the governorship in blue Virginia by diving head first into the culture war.
While Youngkin is a corporate-friendly moderate by any stretch, his campaign stalled when he wore a mask and focused on grocery taxes and other economic matters. When he overruled his high-paid consultants and drilled down on contentious battles of transgender ideology, left-wing school boards, shuttered classrooms, and activist teachers, he pulled ahead, earning a surprise win.
This win would not have been possible had McConnell and his men run Youngkin’s campaign. Instead, they would have driven Youngkin’s campaign past grocery taxes and inflation and right into an obscure page of has-been political history.
Youngkin might have preferred those economic issues, sure. He is a retired businessman (like most of the rest of the national GOP) and is most at ease when speaking about economic issues. He didn’t have that choice, however; nor did the moderate suburbanites who propelled him to the governor’s manse.
This brings us to the third problem with McConnell and the boy’s election strategy: In the culture war, the GOP is not the aggressor. Far from it, the Republican Party (and the American people, more broadly) are fighting a defensive maneuver: Today’s battles aren’t about shutting down gay bars or raiding Black Panther meetings; rather, they’re being fought in our kids’ classrooms and bathrooms.
And this isn’t slowing down, either. Despite fireworks over their agenda, just this week the country’s largest teachers union proposed changing “mother” to “birthing parent” in its contracts. This, from an educators’ trade union. This, from all around us.
The hard lesson that suburban parents learned in 2021 is despite the Democrats and the media blame game — and despite the GOP’s hand-wringing — Trump was not the cause of the omnipresent American Culture War. Yes, he answered nearly every call to battle, but rarely did he instigate any major cultural conflicts.
Perhaps to moderates and McConnell’s great surprise, in schools, professional sports, playgrounds, city halls, amusement parks, and entertainment companies across the country, the culture war has continued in his absence. In many places, it’s even heated up.
That’s why suburban parents from all types of political, religious, and ethnic backgrounds are rebelling against woke policies. They understand who the aggressors are; they get it, yet the professionals in charge of the Republican Party don’t.
That’s a problem that reflects poorly on both McConnell’s team’s political acumen and on their political courage. Theirs is a strategy that will lead to anemic electoral gains at best, in what should (through no fault of their own) be a banner year for Republicans.
Theirs is a strategy that mistakes the nature of the 2022 election, misses some of the main issues motivating suburban voters, and most damningly, misunderstands the very nature of the fight the American people are engaged in: We can fight, or we surrender; there is no retreat.