There was a time when Charlie Baker, the popular Republican governor of Massachusetts who won his bid for reelection by a wider margin than did the stalwart progressive Senator Elizabeth Warren, might have been considered one of the GOP’s leading lights. As it stands, he is an oddity. Though the Republican Party still commands the allegiance of some secular, college-educated, upper-middle-income voters in the suburbs of big cities, such voters represent a shrinking share of its coalition.
Admittedly, this is not an entirely new development. Voters who describe themselves as socially liberal and fiscally conservative, or rather socially progressive and fiscally pragmatic, have been gravitating to the Democrats since the Clinton era. But the 2018 midterm elections really do feel like the culmination of this decades-long trend. Rockefeller Republicans have fully given way to Bloomberg Democrats, a shift that seems especially pronounced among younger elite-educated professionals, and it is hard to envision a reversal. Henceforth, the Republican Party will either win working-class voters or lose its grip on power.
In Grand New Party, published a decade ago, Ross Douthat and I argued that the Republican Party was evolving into the party of the white working class, and that its path forward would be to craft a more populist economic agenda that could secure the loyalty of working-class voters of all colors and creeds. We warned that if the party’s leadership failed to reflect the material interests and cultural sensibilities of its working-class base, Republicans would find themselves doomed to defeat. What we failed to anticipate is that the thermostatic rejection of congressional Democrats in 2010 and 2014 would delude at least some Republicans into believing that there was a large working-class constituency for shrinking the safety net and expanding temporary guest-worker programs, both pet causes of the party’s erstwhile rising stars. The rise of Donald Trump put those illusions to rest.