Republicans won the popular vote in House races by at least 6 percent and have taken the House. But the midterm elections were, overall, a massive disappointment for conservatives, with Republicans losing key races and seats in the Senate.
Cue the Republican infighting. The establishment quickly blamed former President Donald Trump for the losses, and it seems to care little about the fact that delayed vote counting and massive Democratic turnout due to ballot harvesting now appear to be a fact of life in American elections. Trump did pick some terrible candidates, such as Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania, who by many accounts ran an extremely subpar campaign. Trump’s picks, true to form, appear to be based on loyalty to Trump rather than substance. But establishment candidates performed poorly also, and explicitly anti-Trump Republicans did worst of all.
Meanwhile, some blamed abortion. But many Republicans who performed poorly were not pro-life, such as Dr. Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania. Also, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott all recently passed pro-life bills and won their races (with DeSantis massively outperforming). Democrats ran on abortion in New York and California too and still lost key House races.
Republicans were also massively outspent, as corporate money flooded to the Democrats. Anti-establishment conservatives point out that Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., spent $10 million on pro-abortion Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s campaign to help her defeat a conservative challenger, and spent $20 million on a safe Republican Alabama seat to elect the establishment’s preferred candidate. Meanwhile, McConnell cut funds for anti-establishment candidates such as Blake Masters in Arizona (who might have voted against McConnell as Senate majority leader). Masters spent $7 million, and his Democratic opponent spent $73 million. This lopsided campaign spending dynamic existed across the country, including in the Georgia, New Hampshire, and Nevada Senate races.
Others blame the GOP’s populism. Didn’t populist darlings like Masters lose, and J.D. Vance have a tough time in Ohio? The narrative that Vance struggled in Ohio because voters didn’t like his message is a complete lie, but one that has been advanced by the Fox News panel on election night, The Wall Street Journal editorial types, and goofball Chris Cillizza. Vance won by 7 points, the same margin as Trump in 2020. If anything Vance was held back by GOP donors, and Vance in the last week bucked them by proposing broad, across-the-board tariffs to rebuild American industry.
Meanwhile, Masters was a good candidate but made videos about cultural issues without any accompanying policy proposals. Masters did, however, float privatizing Social Security (in Arizona, no less), and about half the Democrat money spent against him was on that issue.
Real Populism, Not Performative
The reason Republicans underperformed, and will keep underperforming until something changes, is that they have broadly rejected populism — which is what put Trump in the White House in 2016, not his personality. The populism on the campaign trail hit a brick wall in Washington. McConnell has bragged that he steered Trump away from the populist items Trump was elected on. So did former House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who allegedly worked behind the scenes to slow Trump’s border wall.
Even Trump, aside from blockage by establishment Republicans and his terrible personnel choices, failed to govern as a populist. Yes, he had positive achievements like China tariffs (hated by the GOP establishment and Wall Street), but in his last year in office he was adding troops to the Middle East and Africa, and his signature legislative achievement was a corporate tax cut that enriched the senior employees of large corporations who largely hate his voters (the accompanying small business tax cuts were not permanent, while the corporate cuts were permanent). Trump’s 2020 campaign was starkly different than his 2016 campaign, and gone was the messaging that Trump would take on a corrupt system. In Trump’s 2020 campaign, he ran on himself.
Aside from candidates like Vance, much of the populism in the Republican Party today is performative, not real. Candidates may be full of fire-breathing rhetoric, but when was the last time you heard a Republican candidate propose a plan for reforming, breaking up, or abolishing the FBI? Taking corruption out of government and reducing corporate influence? Fixing higher education? Or bringing jobs back? Populism is not being or acting like an outsider. Populism is policies that takes on protected interests and the oligarchy for the good of the many. That’s why our oligarchy hates populism. In the words of Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., “what are Republicans going to do for working people?”
Far too often, “Conservative Inc.” has been replaced by “America First Inc.,” where opportunists promote the “look” and “feel” of Trumpism while completely ignoring what caused a bunch of (mostly white) working-class voters to swing big for Trump in 2016.
Performative (fake) populism without a policy framework allows the oligarchic Democrat Party to out-populist the Republicans. Oz ran in Pennsylvania wrapped in celebrity but as a generic Republican. Pundits on the right can’t wrap their heads around why John Fetterman, the shorts- and hoodie-wearing Democrat who just had a stroke, won the U.S. Senate race, but Fetterman’s campaign focused on closed factories, working people, and bringing jobs back. Oz had overseen experiments on dogs, and Fetterman’s campaign promised stricter animal welfare laws. If you are a Pennsylvanian living paycheck to paycheck (over half the state), who do you think relates more to someone like you?
Outside the MAGA crowd, the rest of the GOP is even more intent on deep-sixing the message underlying Trump’s 2016 win. Candidates ran on “fighting inflation” without explaining what they would do to fight inflation. The generic Republican answer blamed Democrats for spending too much (true). But the American people must remember that Republicans also poured money on the post-Covid stimulus fire — mind you, not on things that normal people liked, like the stimulus checks, but on the “Paycheck Protection Program,” which ended up being a boondoggle, resulted in massive fraud, and allowed the more unscrupulous rich business owners to splurge on sports cars. A populist answer involves reining in spending in some areas but making sure the rich pay what they owe, while talking about policies to re-shore supply chains that have proven to come under strain and are far too reliant on China.
No Proposals for Solutions
Take Minnesota, this author’s home state, as another set of examples. The GOP gubernatorial candidate, Scott Jensen, ran ads showing violence in the streets without proposing solutions — which is probably purposeful because the state GOP has rejected longer sentences for even child predators. Tyler Kistner, a congressional candidate who lost in 2020 under the messaging “send in the Marine,” ran again in 2022 as a generic Republican. Ads showed him as a nice guy with a nice family and accused Angie Craig, the Democrat, of voting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Meanwhile, Craig ran a handful of ads about skilled trades, apprenticeships, and factory jobs. Kistner could have hammered Craig on being connected to Big Pharma, but Kistner held back on that because that would require legislation that GOP leaders and donors don’t want.
One of many populist solutions that should have been offered by Republican candidates is to fix higher education. Colleges should be required to disclose basic statistics to parents and students on each majors’ graduation rate, employment, and earnings before receiving student loans. Further, colleges that produce shoddy results in a certain major or field should be on the hook for some of that student debt. This would be politically popular with many voters on both sides and rein in an area heavily subsidized by taxpayer dollars that is a hotbed of radical leftism. That’s populism, but it is also good policy.
Yet the GOP has no plan here, as in many other areas. Nor does the GOP appear to want to have a plan. Generally, on pure policy, the Republican Party is running as if George W. Bush were still governor of Texas. It is devoid of specific policy proposals to confront the fears and concerns Americans face in the 21st century and to fix our deepest problems.