Much of the conversation within the Republican Party has revolved around Donald Trump and the many populists seeking to claim his mantle. Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, who has effectively been a party of one in the Senate, has been frequently cited as a presidential candidate in 2024, as have populist Senators Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio.
Despite their substantial media coverage, however, there hasn’t been a surge of capitalist-skeptic Republicans in office. In fact, if one looks at the recent special elections that have been held this year, the candidates that have won have been traditional Republicans triangulating with Trump. Looking at the big picture can present a more realistic view of what conservatism might look like in the future.
Mike Garcia provides a jolt of optimism in California
Other writers at Elections Daily have covered the special election in CA-25 in greater detail, but it’s worth noting it here. Back when Rep. Katie Hill (D) resigned in November 2019, nobody except Elections Daily writer Genya Coulter really felt this race (a suburban seat that swung from Romney+2 to Clinton+7) would be competitive. It was assumed that former Republican Rep. Steve Knight would lose to Democrat Christy Smith, who represented the 38th district of the California State Assembly. Sure enough, Knight received support from fellow Californian and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and seemed primed to carry the GOP mantle.
However, insurgent Republican Mike Garcia managed to corral a slew of impressive local endorsements (including former Rep. Buck McKeon, former Gov. Pete Wilson, and the Los Angeles County Republican Party) and secured a spot in the runoff, beating Knight 25.4% to 17.2%. In the general, Garcia ran a disciplined, error-free campaign that focused almost entirely on traditional Republican economics: smaller government, tax cuts, and the national debt. Trump was placed on the backburner – never disowned, but not really addressed – and on issues like immigration, Garcia struck a mostly agreeable tone to Trump while backing increased legal immigration.
Aided by a massive gaffe from Smith wherein she insulted Garcia’s military record, Garcia would ultimately cruise to a landslide win of nearly 10 percentage points. It remains to be seen if Garcia will win in November, but at the very least his race indicates a mostly traditional conservative campaign can be competitive in suburbs hostile to Trump.
Tom Tiffany shows the appeal of conservatism in Trump districts
Following the resignation of Congressman Sean Duffy in September 2019, it was widely assumed his district, WI-07, would remain in the Republican column. Notable for being represented from 1969 to 2010 by Democratic Rep. Dick Obey, WI-07 is rooted in northern Wisconsin and has a PVI of R+8 according to the Cook Political Report. While ancestrally Democratic, it saw a massive swing from Romney+3 to Trump+21.
On paper, this should be the perfect seat for a Trumpy populist to win in. 30-year old Jason Church, a military veteran who lost both his legs in an IED attack, ran as an outsider populist and attracted the support of Senator Tom Cotton and Turning Point USA President Charlie Kirk.
His opponent, state senator Tom Tiffany, ran a more conventionally conservative campaign focused on the deficit and the economy. One of the centerpieces of his campaign was the repeal of Bacon-Davis, a law that requires the federal government to pay prevailing wages for laborers; Church opposed repealing it. At the same time, Tiffany threw in more Trumpian positions like support for the wall, fair trade, and draining the swamp.
The result? Tiffany defeated Church by over 14 percentage points in the primary and won even the more working-class friendly counties of Ashland, Bayfield, and Douglas. Following the primary, he was embraced by President Trump and other allies. Tiffany would go on to easily win the special election on May 12.
Could Nikki Haley be a standard-bearer?
Former South Carolina Governor and ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley appears uniquely positioned to appeal to both movement conservatives and Trump supporters. At 48 years old she is quite young by national standards and she has a broadly appealing backstory as the daughter of Indian immigrants.
Both her populist and conservative credentials are hard to argue. She was first elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives in 2004 after unseating Larry Koon, the longest-serving member of the legislature, on a reform platform. As a member of the legislature, she sided with reform-oriented Governor Mark Sanford against the old guard, then was elected in 2010 to replace him with Tea Party support. Finally, as a member of the Trump Cabinet she became arguably the most popular politician in the United States with a nearly unheard of 63-17 approval rating (including the support of a majority of Democratic voters).
Since leaving the Trump administration on New Year’s Eve 2018, she’s remained a vocal figure in support of conservative policies. She notably resigned from the board of Boeing as a protest against corporate bailouts, instead preferring to focus COVID-19 relief entirely on individuals and small businesses. She’s also aggressively targeted China, presenting them as a national security risk. At the same time, she’s become a vocal advocate and defender of capitalism against Hawley and Rubio, the candidate she endorsed in the 2016 primaries.
To be sure, Haley is the one member of the Trump administration that left with higher popularity than she entered. It remains to be seen if she can triangulate traditional conservatives and populists under one roof, but she certainly appears set to try.
While talk of radical changes to the Republican Party is understandable in the present environment, the hardcore populist wing, like Never Trumpers, seem to be overrepresented in the media. While President Trump has certainly brought some change to the Republican Party, a complete abandonment of traditional free market economics seems unlikely – especially when Trump’s biggest policy achievement, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, was a gigantic tax cut crafted by Paul Ryan.
Nobody can say for certain who the Republican Party will nominate in 2024 or 2028, but looking at the evidence seems to show a scenario where Trumpism integrates into the existing conservative policy agenda rather than supplanting it – and if that’s the case, someone like Nikki Haley might be able to take the title of standard bearer.