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The questions facing the Republican Party

Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman is the lone statewide elected Republican on the West Coast. She has survived two difficult reelection campaigns by staying above the fray, and away from the partisan crossfire that seems to spiral further out of control with each passing election cycle in the other Washington

But as Wyman settled into her third term, the other Washington was on her mind.  

“I think what January 6th has really done is focused people who consider themselves Republican to do a lot of introspection and understand that we really do have to redefine the party,” Wyman said.

Since then, signs that the Republican Party is headed for a grand redefinition have been mixed. On the one hand, Republicans at the national level and in state legislatures around the country have repeated former President Trump’s false claims of widespread election fraud and have, in some cases, used those false claims as the impetus for passing a raft of voting restrictions. 

Trump critics within the party have been censured, purged from leadership posts, and several now stare down primary challenges from candidates promising a greater degree of obsequiousness to the former president. One might go as far as to say these Republicans have been “cancelled.” These are not signs that portend a redefinition of the sort Wyman had in mind when I spoke to her back in February.   

I would like to see us move in the direction that, frankly, Ronald Reagan moved the party in 1980. One of the reasons I became a Republican in 1980 was this idea of a big tent and that you can have a variety of points of view within the party and that someone you agree with 80 percent of the time is not your enemy.” 

The zero-sum mindset persists, at least with regard to Trump and the unyielding loyalty he demands. But on the other hand, some influential Republicans have been pushing for a different sort of redefinition. 

Indiana Congressman Jim Banks, chairman of the Republican Study Committee, sent a six page memo to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy at the end of the March with the subject line “Cementing GOP as the Working-Class Party.” In his memo, Banks wrote about a Bloomberg News analysis of contribution data from online donation platforms to the Biden and Trump campaigns. 

The analysis found that Trump fared better than Biden with manual laborers. For example, 75% of construction workers and 79% of mechanics gave to Trump. By contrast, 94% of professors and 73% of bankers gave to Biden. 

Especially on the last data point, things have changed,” wrote Banks. “In 2012, Wall Street contributed roughly $6 million to Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, and gave more than three times that amount to Mitt Romney. In 2020, Wall Street donated four times more to Joe Biden than Donald Trump. President Trump didn’t just shift each party’s role—he caused a paradigm reversal. After five years, it’s clear this reversal isn’t a temporary realignment contingent on Donald Trump’s presence in the White House–both parties are undergoing coalitional transformations.”

The class breakdown is not perfect; a majority of business owners donated to Republicans and a majority of cashiers donated to Democrats. But Banks said the data shows that Republicans need to consciously promote policies that appeal to working-class voters. The policies he lists include a hard line on immigration, opposition to China’s predatory trade practices, “Anti-Wokeness,” criticism of coronavirus lockdowns and increased opposition to Big Tech.

Congresswoman Liz Cheney, who was recently ousted from her leadership post for criticizing Trump, reportedly derided Banks’ memo as “neo-Marxist.”

Debates about “the working-class” and “neo-Marxism” may have more legs in the other Washington, where gridlock is the norm and posturing is the name of the game. How are Republicans thinking about coalitional transformation at the state and local levels, where inaction is less of an option?

At the closing Republican leadership press conference of the 2021 session, House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox and Senate Minority Leader John Braun said the suburbs will be particularly important for Republicans if they are to narrow, or take back majorities.

“It certainly is going to make it much more difficult to have a middle-class suburban lifestyle,” Wilcox said of the Democratic agenda in 2021. 

“We showed that we can stay focused on what I think are the core things,” added Braun. 

Braun outlined three core things his caucus plans to message around in the suburbs: family wage jobs, education funding and a sustainable budget. “This sounds like the Democratic message to the suburbs from 10-15 years ago, right?” wrote Wire publisher DJ Wilson at the time.

When looking at this message, Banks’ use of the word “realignment” instead of “redefinition” might be useful. The Republican policy agenda in Washington State has not undergone a significant ideological shift over the past 10-15 years. Republicans are not running ads touting their support for organized labor, progressive taxation or growing the budget to create new programs. Republicans have not redefined what they stand for, but they might be redefining who they stand for.

If a genuine realignment is underway, it is coming from the bottom-up. Has the electorate realigned in such a way that presents new opportunities for Republicans?       

For Republicans in Congress like Banks, cementing the GOP as the working-class party might foil the plans of state legislative leaders like Wilcox and Braun. A 2019 Morning Consult Survey found that more than half of city-dwellers consider themselves poor or working-class, and over half of those living in suburban areas identify as some level of middle-class. A 2018 Brookings Institution report found that most middle-class households live in large metro areas.  

Republicans who need to extend their appeal beyond deep red congressional districts are under no illusion about what type of voters are moveable. Wyman is clear-eyed about who kept her in office: “You look at my race with the data and you can look at the places where I did well. That’s where you have room to move from a political standpoint.”  

Wyman outperformed the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Loren Culp, by 16 points in King County, 11 points in Snohomish County and 10 points in Pierce County. Running for secretary of state and running for governor are different tasks, but the numbers indicate that Wyman put together a coalition that contained urban, suburban and rural voters. 

If legislative Republicans see middle-class, suburban voters as their ticket back to the majority, will they be able bring those voters in while placating the “working-class” voters who identify as Trump supporters first and Republicans second?

Wyman doesn’t have much influence over the state’s public policy, but like her, almost every statewide elected Republican over the past 30 years has been a member of the Mainstream Republicans of Washington (MRW). As the Wire previously reported, MRW has been at odds with Loren Culp’s campaign and figures like King County GOP Chair Joshua Freed, who view the group as insufficiently conservative.

Following the November election, Culp made baseless claims of widespread voter fraud which Wyman refused to indulge. Her unwillingness to bend was not without consequences. 

I would say in 2020 the world turned upside down for me politically because in the aftermath of the November election I had people, making really nasty comments on social media threads, many of them generated from the Facebook live stream that Loren Culp and Chris Gergen did, calling me also sorts of names from ‘RINO’ to ‘she’s really a Democrat and she just pretends to be a Republican,’ and I’m apparently I’m part of the ‘deep state’ according to these folks. I didn’t know that until I read that on a social media feed.”

According to Wyman, the Republican base has not reacted to her victory with a sense of satisfaction that they still have one of their own holding statewide office. It is the voters who likely reside in Democratic strongholds that have had her back: 

“The vitriol on social media in particular has been pretty harsh, and definitely coming from the base voters in the Republican Party. And then of course the Culp campaign doxed me and put my personal cell phone number out on Facebook. The upside down part is, after the election I got a handwritten note from Indivisible Olympia thanking me for the even-handedness of how we conducted the election in this state and my leadership. But for every nasty phone call or text message or social media post, I probably got five messages from moderates to self-described lifelong Democrats who’ve never voted for a Republican thanking me. So it’s been a balance.”

Sam Reed, Wyman’s predecessor and another MRW member, served three terms as Washington’s Secretary of State before retiring in 2012. He told me that Culp advanced to the general election in 2020 because the slate of Republican candidates was large and diffuse. In this sense, his campaign closely mirrored the Trump playbook: emerge from a divided primary with a plurality and eventually, refuse to concede defeat. 

Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring, who currently chairs MRW, said the math is clear for Republicans hoping to win statewide in the future.  

I think the case we’re trying to make at MRW is, if we ever want to make the kind of changes we all want to make in the Republican Party, you have to be in office. You can’t make those changes from the sidelines. In Washington, what that means is you’ve got to build a center-right coalition. You have got to unite the Republican Party, and then you have to pull in some moderate or conservative Democrats. That’s just what the numbers say in Washington for statewide office. We can wish it were different, but the facts on the ground couldn’t be clearer in 2021.”

With regard to the primary, why was Culp the one who could put together a plurality? Why couldn’t Freed, who, according to Reed, wanted MRW’s endorsement before later railing against the group?    

One potential answer might be found in Banks’ memo. Offering a roadmap for “rebranding” and “reorienting” the GOP as the party of the working-class, Banks says Republicans should “Highlight the cultural and economic elitism that animates the Democrat Party.”

“Nothing better encapsulates Democrats’ elitism and classism than their turn towards ‘wokeness’ … The Republican Party’s electorate grew over the past five years, because President Trump drew working-class voters in, and Democrat elitism drove them away,” Banks wrote. 

Covering Culp’s primary victory, Jim Brunner of the Seattle Times wrote that Culp “beat out a crowded Republican primary field with a campaign built on social media energy and rallies packed with mask-less supporters defying Gov. Jay Inslee’s COVID-19 executive orders.” 

Before running for governor, Culp gained name recognition as police chief of Republic when he refused to enforce Initiative 1639, a voter-approved gun control measure. Explaining that decision, he compared police enforcing gun laws to police and military officials in Nazi Germany who “arrested Jews and put them in concentration camps because it was the law.” His antics earned him the enthusiastic support of Ted Nugent. 

If Republican voters wanted to nominate a candidate who seemed willing to wage cultural warfare, they made a reasonable choice. It also seems reasonable to assume that Culp voters did not see in him a disciple of Reagan’s Big Tent GOP. They saw an outsider promising to use “warrior mindset” to crush the economic and cultural elite in Seattle. 

The trouble for Republicans like Wyman, Reed, Wilcox, Braun and Nehring is that the “warrior mindset” might not play well in suburbs. And it is worth interrogating whether culture war issues and working-class issues are separable for the Republican base. Would Culp’s campaign have been more or less successful had he spoke about economic issues without flouting mask mandates and hearkening back to Nazi Germany?

The Republican Party has long railed against what it deems “class warfare.” But culture war might be the bigger threat to their electoral prospects at the state level. The math seems to indicate that Republicans who have won statewide races over the past 30 years have done so by putting together coalitions that lack neither working-class voters nor middle-class voters. Republicans mulling a run for statewide office will be tasked with stitching together a multi-class coalition as their national party apparatus is doing its best to define class through the lens of culture war and “warrior mindset.”

Republicans from Banks to Culp to Wyman, they all want something new. Their prefix of choice since November has been “re”.  Before it can “redefine,” “realign,” “reorient” or “rebrand” itself, the party has several questions to answer.

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