While the indictment of former president Donald J. Trump by a Manhattan District Attorney drew most of our attention last week, the Republican Party continued a historic losing streak in national and statewide elections with defeats in the Chicago mayoral race and in the extraordinarily significant battle for control of the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
The results in Chicago, where Democrat and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson won a narrow victory over former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, were significant because Republicans were unable to win even when Democrats were divided (they dumped the incumbent mayor, Democrat Lori Lightfoot, in the primaries) and facing high levels of crime and significant problems with their police and public schools. And in Wisconsin, progressive Janet Protasiewicz’s victory over conservative Daniel Kelly by double digits in a campaign that cost both sides more than $45 million had immense national implications. At a minimum, it likely means abortion will remain legal in Wisconsin and that the Wisconsin Legislature, controlled by a GOP supermajority, will face challenges when it comes to continuing their efforts to gerrymander state election districts and limit the power of public employee unions. There is even the chance the supreme court will roll back some of the GOP legislation passed in Wisconsin over the last several years.
These elections continue the pattern of poor Republican performance even in states where Republicans are in the majority and at a time when Democrats are vulnerable on many issues and President Joe Biden has an approval rating barely above 42 percent. The GOP should be winning big at the national and state levels, and yet they keep underperforming. Why?
For starters, we should take note of the long-term trends. Republicans lost 40 seats in the House of Representatives during the 2018 midterm elections. That is the largest loss of Congressional seats in any election since 1974. Pundits tend to blame the losses on public disenchantment with then-President Donald Trump. That disenchantment endured through the 2020 presidential election, which Trump lost by more than seven million votes, which was hardly surprising because he lost the popular vote in 2016 as well and became president only by winning in the electoral college. In 2020 Republicans also lost two runoff elections in Georgia, which cost them control of the United States Senate.
Conservatives had reason for joy in 2022 when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and threw the issue of abortion back to the states. But their joy was short-lived because polls indicate a majority of Americans support the right of women to have abortions in at least some circumstances and Democrats have been winning elections on that issue (even in conservative states like Kansas) ever since. In the 2022 mid-terms the GOP barely won control of the House of Representatives and lost control of the U.S. Senate in a year when they should have won in a landslide based on our economic challenges alone, and virtually all of the Republican 2020 election deniers were defeated when more traditional candidates might have won.
So, problem No. 1 is abortion. Most Americans support a limited right to an abortion. Many Republicans do not. That makes the issue a tough sell politically at the state and national level, though criminalizing abortion may remain overwhelmingly popular in select districts.
Problem No. 2 is picking weak candidates. That should be an easy problem to fix, as there are plenty of intelligent conservatives. But instead it is extraordinarily difficult because the party fixates on cultural issues rather than bread-and-butter topics like crime and schools, and because it finds it impossible to distance itself from election deniers, who polls indicate most Americans reject as unfit for office.
And that is because of problem No. 3, which is Donald Trump. He remains stupendously popular with the GOP base, and he likes election deniers and sycophants and so they tend to win Republican primaries. Trump leads Gov. Ron DeSantis, the only other hypothetically viable GOP candidate for president in 2024, by 26 percent among Republicans, so the nomination appears to be his to lose. But Trump remains toxic, trailing Joe Biden in all nationwide polling and posting even lower approval ratings. His indictment last week, and the multiple pending criminal investigations that still hang over him, may inspire his most fervent supporters to rally around him but they are likely to continue to push moderate and swing voters away, meaning the GOP may already be chained to Trump as a nominee even though he has never won a popular vote and holds little hope of winning one in 2024.
Then there is problem No. 4, which is that the GOP has a long pattern of being on the wrong side of history. Republicans fought against Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Now they support them. They fought against expanding Medicare as part of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), and yet 40 states (including Oklahoma) have now voted to do so. North Carolina became the most recent; their GOP-controlled legislature voted 87-24 in the House and 44-2 for the expansion.
They did so because of problem No. 5, which is our political parties have dramatically swapped demographics. In the old days Democrats were associated with the working poor while Republicans were allegedly the party of the wealthy. Yet today 70 percent of Republicans in the House of Representatives come from districts where the median income is lower than the national average, while 60 percent of Democrats represent districts where the median income is higher. That means that poor people are now the face of the Republican Party, and they like the government social programs that many GOP leaders traditionally talk about cutting in order to reduce spending.
The 2024 election is a long way off, so perhaps Republicans will find solutions to these problems. And though we have not discussed them here, it is certainly true that the Democratic Party faces challenges as well. But the last few years have not been kind to Republicans, and the issues that trouble them most appear to be structural and long term rather than temporary. How they face them will determine whether 2024 marks a turnaround or yet another underperforming defeat.
Lance Janda holds a PhD in History from the University of Oklahoma and has more than 30 years of experience in higher education. He is the author of “Stronger Than Custom: West Point and the Admission of Women”, among other works.