From the minute Donald Trump was elected President, many GOP politicians were scrambling. The likes of Pete Sessions, Mimi Walters, and Leonard Lance had to figure out how to win in districts where the President remained unpopular. They could not embrace him, and many decided instead to try to distance themselves. In 2018, many of these representatives were defeated, and in the aftermath, Republicans took a new approach.
This strategy, embodied by Mike Garcia, saw many GOP challengers taking Trump’s endorsement and not fully distancing themselves from him. To many observers, this seemed illogical. Why tout the endorsement of a polarizing politician in a district where he is unpopular? But in fact this strategy made, and still makes, perfect sense. Given the changing internal dynamics of the GOP, as well as the restrictive nature of campaigns, this kind of approach will remain the most effective way for the GOP to compete in wealthy suburban districts as long as Trump is in office.
Survivor’s Bias and the Conventional Wisdom
Survivor’s bias is an ominous sounding term, but in reality it’s fairly benign. It’s merely the logical flaw of drawing conclusions about a group after the group has been put through a selection process. For example, trying to discern what types of students applied to a college by interviewing the students living in its freshman dorm.
This is essentially what the GOP did after 2018. The members most likely to try to run away from the President resided in the most vulnerable seats. Most of them lost, and no one in politics likes a loser. The party looked at the results and concluded that their approach must have been faulty. In fact, after the results were in, the Florida GOP chair derided Carlos Curbelo’s campaign strategy and praised Ron DeSantis’. This was after Curbelo lost his seat by 2%, but DeSantis lost it in his gubernatorial bid by 7%.
To their credit, the GOP was smart enough to see their losses in these districts were due in large part to Trump’s continued toxicity. But they also realized, perhaps rightfully so, that moderating even more would have quickly diminishing returns or even a negative effect on their own voters’ turnout. On top of that, even Republicans that were far from Trump acolytes were still beaten over the head with ads showing how frequently they voted with the President. Overall, it’s easy to see why the party felt like it didn’t reap the benefits of moderation. The GOP needed to strike a middle ground of exciting the base and letting their candidates have their own brand.
Of course, decisions about how a nationwide party should approach swing district races is not an entirely top down dynamic. The party’s voters also played an important role in the change. As the nation’s wealthy suburbs shifted left, the most moderate voters in these areas, on average, left the GOP. In turn this has made the primary electorate more conservative and favorable to candidates that tie themselves to President Trump.
Resource allocation is a tricky thing. It’s especially tricky when there’s a valuable resource that’s hugely important, yet rapidly diminishing. In campaigns, this resource is time. Every candidate has an equal amount, no one can get more of it, and campaigns either use it well, or watch it go to waste.
In truth, attempting to be the consummate moderate as a challenger is usually not a good use of time. A good way to illustrate this is to think about how resource intensive and risky it is. Imagine a candidate that decides their path to victory in a swingy, suburban district, is to convince voters they are a true independent. First, they have to get through the previously mentioned, and increasingly conservative, primary electorate. Even if they can survive this challenge, they now have to operate on a condensed timeline. For the next few months, a large portion of their waking hours will be spent thinking about how to respond to questions about the President’s tweets or his latest interview gaffe. Even if they succeed in winning the trust of independent voters, that trust can take months to earn and an instant to lose. They don’t have a record to fall back on if they slip up. The candidate also has to manage to keep their fundraising operation at a sufficient level, even as they likely alienate the GOP grassroots. In short, no GOP challenger is going to become Brian Fitzpatrick in the span of a few months, and trying to do so is almost certainly a waste of resources.
Now consider the alternate approach, the one many challengers have been taking. They take Trump’s endorsement for what it is worth, and then they never worry about addressing the matter again barring a huge scandal or controversy. They spend their time pointing to their positive attributes and attacking their opponent. As long as they avoid embracing the President too explicitly, they run a low risk of alienating a critical mass of voters. And voters they do alienate can be more than made up for with the time they now get to spend not fielding questions about tweets. Their image cannot be ruined by one errant statement, because their image isn’t built around them being the most independent candidate to ever walk the Earth. It’s built around their military experience, or their business experience, or their ties to the community. These things are unchanging, candidates merely need to emphasize them. This was the approach taken by Mike Garcia, and it’s one the party is eager to duplicate in districts across the nation. Wesley Hunt and Carlos Gimenez are just two more examples of challengers who are embracing this roadmap.
Words of Caution
It is true that the GOP has reason to be hopeful after the success of Mike Garcia and his campaign strategy. It seems that the party may have finally figured out an effective way to approach difficult races in suburban America. But it is worth noting that there aren’t that many Mike Garcias out there. Or Wesley Hunts. Or Carlos Gimenezs. The tactics outlined here only works if the candidate has a compelling backstory, discipline, and the trust of the Republican base. In many ways this resembles the reality that faced Democrats after Connor Lamb’s victory in Spring 2018. He was a veteran with local ties who beat a non-descript state legislator. The party was excited at seeing success in a red district where many believed they could not win. But Democrats could never recruit a Connor Lamb to run in every swing district, just like Republicans won’t be able to run Mike Garcia everywhere come November. Sometimes, there is simply no one in the district with those credentials who wants to run. Sometimes the party base wants someone more ideological. And sometimes the candidate has an amazing backstory but poor campaign skills.
As much as there is reason to be hopeful for the suburban GOP, they are far from cracking the code. The underlying dynamics that have caused America’s educated suburbs to drift away from the party still remain, and they’re likely not changing anytime soon. The reality of campaign economics may have allowed the party to settle on a happy medium for now, but long they are still in trouble. In the meantime however, they can just be happy their candidates won’t be waking up in a cold sweat from tweet-induced nightmares quite as often.