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The rise of the Purple Dog Republican

The Democrats still can’t bring themselves to reclaim their blue-collar base from Trump

March 5, 2019

4:48 PM

5 March 2019

4:48 PM

Here’s a riddle for you, and if you solve it, the Democrats will nominate you for president: how does one candidate carry both Cambridge, Mass. and Luzerne County, Penn.?

Sure, the former’s a cake-walk. Hillary Clinton could stand in the middle of Harvard Square and shoot somebody, and she wouldn’t lose any voters from the People’s Republic of Taxachusetts. But the latter, which Obama won in 2012, went to Trump in a whopping 25-point swing. This was the big story in 2016: the defection of blue-collar voters to the Republican party.

Now, as the 2020 election draws nigh, Democratic office-holders in ‘Purple America’ are feeling the heat.

Speaking to Politico at the National Governors Association’s winter meeting, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan offered some advice to her party’s next standard-bearer. ‘What any candidate should do in any race, frankly, is to show up,’ she said. ‘There’s no special, secret sauce there. It’s about having real conversations with real people, and when you do that you stay tethered to the things that matter. And that’s what people want.’

That’s fair enough. Hillary Clinton might have won in 2016 had she bothered to campaign in Wisconsin and Michigan. But even if he spent the entire election shaking hands and kissing tractors, could Beto O’Rourke carry the Wolverine State?

These voters have their own purple values, as Matthew Schmitz has pointed out. They stress parent-child relationships over solid marriages or companionship between spouses. They vote for their own brand of purple Democrats, who are socially conservative almost by default, but (to quote Matthew Walther) strongly support government intervention on ‘bread and butter issues – jobs, the condition of roads, the quality of schools.’ While they care about racial harmony, they have no time for the DNC’s obsession with identity politics.

While Democrats have no trouble winning state elections, their voters clearly aren’t loyal to the party, either. They’re just as happy to vote for a Purple Dog Republican like Trump. The president’s calls to curtail immigration, raise tariffs on imported goods, and punish corporations that outsource manufacturing spoke to their anxieties about their collapsing economies and failing communities. Abortion isn’t a major issue, since it’s not widely available in those parts of the country. Out-of-wedlock births are fairly common and nothing to be ashamed of. So, if asked, they’d prefer a pro-life candidate over a pro-choice one.

And purple state voters don’t care if Trump cheated on his wives; they’re more impressed by how close he is to his kids, and how well he seems to have raised them. They don’t have a conniption when he’s vulgar or offensive, because they’re not wusses. They’re even happy to laugh along when he lands a good one, like ‘Pocahontas’.

Who among the Democrats’ presidential hopefuls would be competitive in the purple states? Sanders, for one. That hard-bitten class warrior did very well in purple America during the 2016 primary, even though the primary was rigged against him. Yet, as Jim Antle has pointed out, Sanders may prove insufficiently woke for coastal progressives. No doubt they would vote for him in a general election against Trump, but he might be elbowed out in the primary by a fanatic like Elizabeth Warren or an establishment darling like Kamala Harris. Then again, Tucker Carlson might be right: Sanders might be rebranding himself as an ‘identity politics drone’. If you were given the opportunity to cash out your principles for a major party’s nomination, who knows? Maybe you’d sell out, too.

Joe Biden, of course, might be a game-changer. The former VP’s reputation as a citizen-senator would give him a fair bit of traction in the heartland. Add the wave of Obama nostalgia he’s riding, and many commentators will call the election the moment he drops his hat into the ring. But I’m not sure it’s that cut-and-dry. Remember, Biden didn’t get anywhere in the 2008 primary. I expect voters would again be underwhelmed by the ‘Creeper-in-Chief’ once he hit the campaign trail again.

And besides, even if Biden managed to unseat Trump, the Democrats have no long-term strategy. Amtrak Joe is the dowager;Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the dauphine.

One would assume the Republican party’s leadership is beginning to realize that they could own the Midwest for at least a generation if they only embraced Trumpism. In fact, poll after poll shows that Purple Dog Republicans represent the dead center of the American electorate. Despite being touted as the Conservative of the Future™, media-certified ‘moderates’ like Kasich and Weld represent a whopping five percent of the voting public. One would assume those poll-jokeys looking for a truly moderate Republican – one that can appeal to mainstream voters on both sides of the partisan divide – would take on the president’s agenda, even if they can’t bring themselves to support Trump himself.

Alas, you would be wrong. The GOP leadership is still happily wedded to Reaganite orthodoxies. If you’ve ever spent any amount of time in the Beltway, you know that Republican politicians, journalists, donors, and lobbyists spend their evenings hopping from one champagne-soaked fundraiser to another, all of them hosted by think-tanks called some variation of ‘Americans for the Economic Freedom’. (I just made that name up, but of course it’s a real thing.)

Last year, I attended a gala where tables went for $50,000 per head. The speakers were a failed 2016 Republican primary candidate and the editor of a major right-of-center magazine that went defunct a couple months later. The dinner was held in honor of a man (recently deceased) most famous for losing two senate races. But he was anti-borders and pro-free market, so they gave him a proper send-off.

I don’t mean to be cruel to any of these men, most of whose careers peaked when their principles were still in vogue. But, for those who’ve been spared life in the capital, it’s difficult to communicate how out-of-touch the Republican elite really are. They’ll happily spend the rest of their lives using their power, wealth and influence to stave off the purple tide rising in the GOP.

This leaves Democrats with a 15-year window to win back their old blue-collar base. If they don’t seize it, they’ll find themselves holed up in Goldman Sachs boardrooms, sociology department lounges, and gender-neutral Starbucks toilets. Still, if I were a betting man, I’d wager they’ll blow it. And that’s fine with me. Bring on the Purple Dogs.


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