Republicans Need a Villain for the Midterms

With the GOP currently running everything, coming up with a suitably electrifying bogeyman could prove challenging.

Nancy Pelosi and Elizabeth Warren stand in a room with others.
James Lawler Duggan / Reuters

Like most politics of late, the 2018 elections promise to be wild and weird. For starters, midterms typically serve as a referendum on the sitting president—which should be fabulous news for Democrats, given that Donald Trump’s favorability numbers are now smaller than his waistline. Except! When one peruses the actual electoral map, the House, Senate, and gubernatorial landscapes all favor Republicans.

As for turnout, while the GOP’s base (read: old, white folk) is usually far better about voting in non-presidential years than the Democrats’ (read: young ‘uns and minorities), Dems are unusually exercised (read: apoplectic) about this president. And while hardcore Trumpkins are expected to stand by their man, a growing number of “soft” Trump voters are expressing buyer’s remorse. There’s no telling how this cohort will vote (or not) come next November.

Which ultimately renders this oh-so-peculiar political dynamic subject to an oh-so-commonplace political law: Whichever team more furiously fires up its base will carry the midterms.

For Democrats, the mission looks pretty basic: Keep pointing at Trump and asking voters in horrified tones, “Do you really want this guy running around unchecked?” Expect Democratic campaign ads to make liberal use of photos featuring Trump smirking alongside Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell. Message: What cozy peas in a pod!

The path forward for Republicans is much less clear. Mobilizing one’s base involves aiming for the gut, spotlighting a proper villain—be it person (Hillary) or policy (Obamacare)—that makes the masses see red and reach for their pitchforks. But with Republicans currently running everything (including the botched repeal of Obamacare), coming up with a suitably electrifying bogeyman could prove challenging.

“I would take solid aim at the dysfunction in Washington and how Trump needs more helping in draining the swamp,” suggested long-time GOP strategist John Feehery. “Democratic obstruction and the inability of Congress to produce could be very problematic for red-state Democrats.”

No question, Washington-bashing resonates with the GOP base. But with Republicans now running everything, blaming largely powerless Democrats for the ongoing FUBAR-osity could be a tough sell.

More broadly, it’s harder to get people riled up about generic dysfunction than it is to get them hating on something or someone specific. And with no obvious Democratic stars to target, Republicans are left focusing mostly on tired standbys.

Most self-evidently, there’s Nancy Pelosi. Despite her lack of legislative power, the House minority leader remains a potent specter among Republicans.

“The prospect of a Speaker Pelosi not only makes Republican base voters shudder, but also drives crucial independent voters in key districts back towards Republican congressional candidates in droves as well,” said GOP communications strategist Kevin Madden. “Pelosi's unpopularity in key districts is the gift that never stops giving. Look at the special election in Georgia. The Democratic base couldn't have been more excited, Trump's numbers were down, and they raised more money than in any House race, ever. They lost because the race ended up being a choice on Speaker Ryan or Speaker Pelosi, instead of being a referendum on Trump.”

“Opposition to Nancy Pelosi, and her liberal agenda, is one of the biggest motivators when it comes to turning out voters of all stripes,” agreed Jesse Hunt, press secretary for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

On the off chance Pelosi doesn’t prove scary enough, there’s always Hillary Clinton. Sure, she lost last year. But just try telling that to Fox News, which continues to cover Clinton and her “scandals” as though she were in the Oval Office. Just as notable, Trump’s go-to response whenever someone questions his fitness for office is to huff about why more people aren’t spending more time obsessing over Hillary’s skeletons.

“Notice that Trump has never dropped his favorite devil figures,” observed Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton may be history, but they are regularly trotted out by Trump and other Republicans—and amazingly, the GOP base’s hatred for them is still red-hot. The subliminal message is: Sure, Trump and Congress haven’t been up to snuff, but think how awful it used to be under Obama, and how miserable it might be now if Hillary were in the White House. Oldies but goodies for a party and a Trump base that revels in bashing old, defeated foes.”

Just to be on the safe side, however, Republicans are reportedly exploring a Plan B for goosing the base: state-ballot initiatives. Karl Rove played this game in 2004, boosting Bush 43’s reelection prospects by using anti-gay-marriage measures to draw social conservatives to the polls. (The degree to which this impacted results has been much debated, though most agree that it gave Bush a leg up in vital Ohio.)

But, here again, finding the right focus can be challenging. Unlike in 2004, Republicans are said to be leery of initiatives dealing with hot-button social issues and are instead leaning toward the more genteel theme of tax reform. This is, to be sure, a core Republican priority, but as gut-level appeals go, it lacks the sexiness and urgency of culture-war issues. Trickier still, who knows how the coming congressional cage match over tax reform will wind up coloring the entire subject.

None of which is to suggest that Republicans are doomed, or even at serious risk of losing either congressional chamber. (See again: the electoral map.) They’ll just need to work a bit harder to determine which buttons to push with their base. The stakes have rarely been higher.

Lord knows Trump plans to spend the next year or so pushing Democrats’ buttons.